DVD Video Reviews Part 2 - January 2002

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The Godfather DVD Collection (1972-1990)

What a package! Lucky were those who received this set for the holidays. Five DVDs (the length of the second film in the series required two DVDs) and for once the extras are thoroughly worth the time spent with them. I found several of them failed to work on my Pioneer DVD player and I had to switch to my Sony 9000ES player to access them properly. One has Coppola sitting on his sofa with the notebook he created by pasting the pages from Mario Puzo's book - complete with notes and ideas scribbled in the margins - and chatting with us about his planning of the films. It's the sort of fascinating details found in few of the extras of other DVDs. The featurette on the music has for its soundtrack some of the cassette Coppola recorded while visiting Nino Rota in Italy - playing his early piano versions of some of the main themes of the films. An eye-opener was the frank admission by Coppola and others that shooting the original feature was a touch-and-go situation with the studio threatening to close it down at any moment. Paramount was unhappy with the young and unproven actor Al Pacino, upon whom Coppola insisted. They even assigned a standby director to follow him around, ready to take over instantly. The scene in which Pacino as Michael kills the competing mobster and a crooked policeman at dinner in an Italian restaurant finally swayed the studio heads with both Pacino's acting and some good bloody violence in the film - something they thought Coppola was avoiding. The interviews and other extras stress how much of the acting was last-minute scripting and improv. One actor compared Capolla's view of the shooting script to a daily newspaper - it changed every day.

The image and sound are glorious though most of the three films. The details of the imaginative cinematography are clearly preserved to point up subtleties I believe I missed in the theatrical viewings. There is a wonderful contrast between the colorful brightly-lit scenes such as the opening wedding party and the darkly Rembrandtesque interiors where nefarious deeds are being planned or rivals rubbed out. Strangely, the watershed scene of the restaurant shooting was the most contrasty and grainy. Many of the family and crowd scenes are filmed with a technique that makes them look like very professional home movies - little of jerking hand-held shots but still informal. For example in some of the long and medium shots of the outdoor wedding party silhouettes of people pass right in front of the camera; you don't see that in a standard theatrical film.

Capolla's artistic use of sound is appropriate to his concerns about how Hitchcock would handle a particular scene or shot - like the master of suspense, Capolla uses the rattle of the elevated train outside the restaurant to point up Michael's screwing up his courage before getting up and shooting the two men at his table. Later the sounds and vibrations of the helicopter are heard over the ballroom where the massacre occurs without the copter ever being seen. Rota created some of his many masterpiece film scores for the Godfather series; the films would not be half as effective without the perfectly-attuned echt-Italian melodies that thread their way in different guises throughout the films. Yet when silence works even better for the drama, we get it. Coppola also speaks in the superb documentary about his efforts to keep his voice dialects authentic and believable without sounding anything like-a da gangsta cliches. Several scenes have Italian or Sicilian dialog without any subtitles, but the viewer gets the point nevertheless - perhaps with more real understanding.

At this late date I don't think a precis of the three film's plots would be of very much value. Suffice it to say that seeing all three in a row over a period of days gives a much deeper empathy with the main character - Michael (Pacino). - He moves from being an outsider who tells his girlfriend (Diane Keaton) "that's my family - not me" to taking over for his father after the attempted assassination and eventually becoming the godfather himself. In the third film - two decades later - much has changed, with the syndicate become more legitimate and Michael finally suffering psychically for the violence and murder that characterized the family under his leadership due to his separation from the more considered and even humane leadership of his father.

Sucha family. Sucha buncha movies. Sucha package!

- John Sunier

Shrek (2001)

Shrek is a big green ogre living in the forest minding his own business and thwarting attacks on his person by villagers in search of reward money. Meanwhile, Lord Farquaad is busy getting rid of all the fairytale creatures of the land. In an effort to hide from the Lord's army, the creatures disappear into the forest and make camp in Shrek's swamp. This is too much for Shrek and he goes to the castle to complain. After besting some of the finest knights in Lord Farquaad's army, Shrek is put on a quest to fight a dragon and rescue a princess to be the Lord's queen. With the help of a talking donkey, Shrek may not only complete his arduous task, but also find his true love. [Ed.: Shrek's face is the spitting image of the head of another studio for which the director of Shrek formerly worked and was forced out by.]

Fine animation and a wonderful sense of playfulness with fairy tales and other films make Shrek different from many of the animated tales released solely for consumption by children. Still present are the moral lessons we've come to expect in such films, and the gross humor present in today's films as well. Picture and sound are excellent. The DTS track was louder than the DD track, so a comparison was difficult. Though not entirely unpredictable, yet still delectable in other ways, this film is definitely worth checking out.

[Ed.: I'd give it four or five stars, one of the best of the year - a delight! Eddie Murphy as the irrepressible donkey is hilarious. The hit of the extras are the short "interviews" with the characters in the animated movie - not Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy etc., but the animated characters answering the typical cliched questions from an off-camera voice about how they liked working with so-and-so. The princess even talks about wanting to do a Charlie's Angels-type movie next (Cameron Diaz was one of the Angels.) The hard-working animators created this entire section just for the delight of the DVD buyers - no one else will be seeing it!]

- Brian Bloom

Legally Blonde (2001)

Young Elle has it all ­ she's the president of her sorority, on her way to earning a college degree, comes from a wealthy family, has a nice car and an adorable dog, as well as a handsome suitor as a boyfriend who is about to propose to her. But what he is about to propose is not exactly what Elle had planned. After a few days cooped up in her room ODing with romantic films and chocolate, she decides it is time to look out for her own future and show him that she is serious and worthy of his love. Her ex-hubby is headed to Harvard Law school to follow in the footsteps of his family. She decides that she's going to get a place at Harvard Law herself so that she may be closer to him and win back his love. When she is there, she realizes that it is not as easy as she imagined. After buckling down and doing some serious studying, she manages to land an internship at a legal firm. Her real-life experience and newfound legal skills come into play and help her to realize her true potential.

Silliness and fun are what this film is about. Along the way, the story line helps to lead us through the exciting and quite unbelievable life of Elle Woods. Picture and sound are both very good, add a good soundtrack and a hip group of actors and actresses, mix in another enjoyable performance by Reese Witherspoon, and you've got a light film worth checking out.

- Brian Bloom

Alien Nation (1988)

In a very "V"-like beginning the visitors have arrived. It seems that a huge alien slave ship has gone off course and landed in Los Angeles. The aliens have been given asylum on the planet and have established businesses and a community of their own. In addition to the good, hard working visitors, come the criminals. As a political move to strengthen human/ alien relations, one of the aliens is promoted to detective. One of the human detectives is determined to solve a tough case having to do with the Newcomers, and who better to help him with the task but the new detective.

Alien Nation is a rather quick-moving semi-typical science fiction film. It has its share of action and excitement, and the fact that it's a short film helps with the pace. The ending is a bit corny and predictable, but overall the film is very easy to watch. There are a few twists and turns, as well as some of the normal elements that are present in most sci-fi tales: questions about humanity and the future, for example. Also present, are some of the key elements in action flicks: the tough all-knowing renegade cop, the bad politician, sexy aliens (okay, not that one), the innocent sidekick partner who shows his worth and value in the end, and questions about morality and race relations. Picture is good although a little washed out with an 80s film look. Sound is good with use of surrounds in the action sequences.

- Brian Bloom

Toots Thielemans in New Orleans (2001)

Recorded in front of a live audience at Mahogany Hall on New Orleans' Bourbon Street, this video puts you for an hour in the enthralling presence of the huggable Belgian jazz harmonica and guitar virtuoso Thielemans. His joy of life is reflected not only in his playing and onstage introductions but also in the short interview segments seen between some of the numbers - which highlight Thielemans' cute accent. Hersch is one of the finest jazz keyboardists today and makes a perfect foil for the harmonicist's classy improvisations. The surround sound puts the listener right in the club. Tunes: The Days of Wine and Roses; Round Midnight/Little Rootie Tootie; Meaning of the Blues; Green Dolphin Street; Three and One; If You Go Away; Only Trust Your Heart; Bluesette (his big hit).

- John Sunier

"Citizen Welles" - The Stranger (1946); The Trial (l963)

I wouldn't normally have bothered to review this two-for-one package except that it shouts so loudly about being "fully restored" - "in perfect condition," according to big-time movie reviewer Jeffrey Lyons, that I had to disagree. I was also interested in the remix of the original mono soundtrack to 5.1 surround. Both efforts are a bust. I reviewed both Welles' films months ago in this section and going back to the Image Entertainment release of The Trial shows it to be slightly less artifact prone than the newer release - though neither is even close to the pristine visual quality of most black & white restorations from, say, Criterion. Although the earlier effort claims to be transferred from the original 35mm film negative, both supposed restorations look like they came from a video source, with overmuch edge enhancement and on the Focusfilm version serious smearing throughout. As for the bogus 5.1 surround sound, the muffled dialog heard in places on the mono version remains just as muffled, and little use is made of sounds on the other channels.

The two primary extras of the new set are only marginal in interest. The documentary is very loose and crudely assembled, though it does impart some interested facts about the production of both films. And Welles' l934 silent first film is so bad it is best forgotten. Both films are not only milestones in the career of one of filmdom's most creative geniuses, but fascinating watching entirely on their own. So don't interpret my grousing about this particular package as a reflection on the acting of either Welles as a disguised Nazi war criminal or Tony Perkins as Kafka's hapless victim - they're both superb in their respective roles. And Welles as the attorney in The Trial seems to share many disturbing traits with his corrupt police official in Touch of Evil.

- John Sunier

Maceo Parker - Roots Revisited (1991/2001)

I wasn't familiar with Maceo Parker and was expecting a straight-ahead mainstream jazz session, especially with the presence of B3 talent Goldings on hand for this live appearance taped in Stuttgart, Germany. Boy was I wrong. This is full strength funky/churchy/blues soul music. Turns out Parker supplied the riffs behind George Clinton and then James Brown for years and when Brown spent time in prison Parker cut loose on his own and soon had an album that was in the top ten of the U.S. Jazz charts in l991. It's an earthy and completely choreographed soul music show recreating the Memphis sound. Parker has his cohorts approach their task with uninhibited gusto and try to conjure up the same excitement they did playing in smoky clubs behind James Brown. Those who are into this genre will be in heaven for an hour. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them. There are some quieter, more introspective selections, such as the lovely Peace Fugue.

The camerawork is fine and while I felt a 5.1 surround track would have been more, well...surrounding, the PCM stereo is very clean and dynamic and the low end rumblings of Goldings' B3 will give your subwoofer(s) a run for it's/their money. The closeups show that the frontline players certainly share one attribute of Brown - they sweat a lot. The screen image is a bit soft-focus compared to the very-high-resolution classical DVDs I have previously seen from ArtHaus.

The eight tunes: Up n' Down East Street, Southwick, In Articulate Speech of the Heart, Peace Fugue, Cold Sweat, Children's World, Everywhere is Out of Town, Doin' It to Death.

- John Sunier

Ghosts of Mars (2001)

I'm always interested to see what low-budget specialists such as Carpenter and Corman can do by substituting a little imagination and creativity for truckloads of money. Carpenter saved oodles in this production by dispensing entirely with spaceships and outer-space gadgets - the only thing that flies in this movie is a brief trip with a hot air balloon. He also filmed entirely on a set built out in the desert and used his one big special effect- a futuristic model train - over and over throughout the film. Aside from a lot of gory, self-mutilating makeup and costumes on the band of insane bad guys, that was it. At least the effects don't look terribly cheesy, and the furnished documentary on their creation does prove interesting.

The plot seems to be Carpenter's economy re-make of Pitch Black, down to the dangerous-deadly prisoner being transported someplace who ends up bonding with the cops to defeat much bigger threats. Also to all the action taking place entirely at night. There's also homage to Carpenter's earlier film The Fog in the Pandora's Box of alien life forms which is accidentally released on Mars and takes over human life forms. (That's also borrowed from lots of other films.) Only in this case the fog is not white but red. Pam Grier is just here for the name - she gets beheaded rather quickly. Ice Cube was much better in Three Kings and Henstridge was much better in Species. The leader of the insane attacking miners looks too much like a member of Kiss. There's too much Alien-style creeping down dark corridors expecting to be jumped on any second by something really awful, too much nonsensical severing of limbs and heads, too much blood spurting, too many blurry red aliens' eye subjective-camera views of the humans and too many explosions. One of the really big ones on the screen, in fact, never even got an appropriate sound synced to it on the soundtrack. Carpenter always creates his own soundtrack music for his films. The so called documentary on this is so loose as to be completely worthless. This score certainly met the doubtful standard that the viewer should not even be aware there was soundtrack music during the film. All I recall were some effects like an electric guitar being tortured to death. This loser actually got a good review in the local paper. Ah, there's no accounting for taste I guess.

- John Sunier


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