DVD-Video Reviews for July-Aug. 2002, Pt. 1 of 2

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BERLIOZ: Les Troyens (1983)

This is probably the only complete version of Berlioz's masterpiece we're going to be enjoying on DVD for a long while. Because of its four hour length, it has not been staged that often. Kobb's Opera Book notes this performance as being the most recent. It is a typical Met production: great singers, acceptable sound, competent but not breathtaking stage direction. As Cassandra, Jessye Norman is spectacular, although her broad gestures and facial expressions are clearly more suited for the stage rather than film, which offers uncompromising close-ups. How well she performs Cassandra's scene with her naïve lover Coroebus! The orchestra underscores the "historical bass" that accompanies her whenever she articulates the opera's historical theme-that of the Trojans and their fate-and then abandons it to romantic legatos whenever Coroebus prates about love. As Dido, Troyanos is also compelling, with an excellent lower register. At times, however, she tends to sing to the audience rather than immerse herself in the moment. Her "Night of Ecstacy" duet with Aeneas, a heroic and conflicted Placido Domingo, is one of the better staged pieces and because of its intensity, underscoring the tragedy of their relationship all the more poignantly.

While her death scene is not as searingly bizarre as Cassandra's, it is as Shakespearean. Berlioz's use of music as a purveyor of historical forces is almost overwhelming: the scene is which Aeneas urges his crew to depart Carthage thrills the soul ("Debout Troyans!"). Domingo's command of his high notes (particularly that sustained high C in the final act) artfully portrays a man in grips of destiny, personal happiness be damned. Fabrizio Melano's staging seems hampered at times. Minor scenes like Hylas the soldier's song lack dynamism. Why not show the man's face? The ballets are pretty but the dance of the slave girls lacks the eroticism necessary to mirror that of Dido and Aeneas. Still, there is enough blazing drama and music to recommend this DVD. You may want to view it in its customary two parts, however.

-- Peter Bates

MUSSORGSKY: Boris Godunov (1990)

Like the recent DVD of Berlioz's massive Les Troyens, this production of Mussorgsky's greatest opera will probably be the only DVD available for a long while. This is not just because of its four-hour length, however. The production itself is such a gem that it would be hard to top. Not since Bergman's The Magic Flute have I seen so many key elements blend so seamlessly. All of the singers are not just great, but they can act. In the staging, you can sense the presence of Russia's greatest filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky (perhaps guiding the director, Stephen Lawless). The sound is excellent for a staged production, marred only occasionally by the squeaking shoe on the floor. Right from the prologue we are gripped by the sense we are witnessing a historical performance. Wondrous touches abound, such as when Boris Godunov makes his first appearance and cringes when a group of peasants comes too close -- while he is singing "all will be welcome!". With its many expressions of the frustrations and aspirations of the people, and its concept of history whirling out of the control of individuals, it resembles Berlioz's Les Troyens.

As Boris, Robert Lloyd is astounding, totally immersed in the role of a man consumed by guilt at murdering the rightful heir (although untrue historically). As the false Dmitri, Alexei Steblianko skillfully conveys a man transforming himself from monk to usurper. His aria with the Lady Macbeth-like Marina (who sings the compelling solo aria, "Skúchno Marinya") astounded me with ominous and gripping music. It has such complex tiers of manipulation: the arch Father Rangoni pimping her onward in the sidelines, as she sings about living in a humble cottage with her naïve paramour. Perhaps most wondrous about this production is its handling of the scenes up to and including Godunov's death. There is nothing noble or pretty about this penultimate scene, as Lloyd's Godunov stumbles and shudders and moans painfully. To accentuate the pathos and confusion, Tarkovsky/Lawless injects a dissonant clanging funeral bell that I've never heard used before. Even the subsequent scene with Dmitri amassing towards Moscow, accompanied by a thunderous chorus, never flags its pace, never becomes an anti-climax. This is the best Godunov we may ever see.

--Peter Bates

Artificial Intelligence (2002)

The polar caps have melted and the Earth is overflowing with water. Certain areas are still above ground and technology has advanced to the point where artificial life forms are commonplace. These "mechas" are designed to take over some of the tasks of humans. Not all the humans are so fond of these advanced mechanisms, and believe they are wrong. But as the needs of humanity surface, the newest member of Mecha is born-a child named David. In a family where their own son is in a coma and may not live, there resides a desire to have the fulfilling existence of another. That other is not real, but looks real, and can learn to be as real as a human. When the real son recovers, the jealousy starts, and the actions of the mecha-son are unpredictable. The decision is made, that, in the best interest of all concerned, the mecha-son should be returned to the factory where he will be destroyed.

Because he looks so real, the doubts begin as to the morality of destroying such an amazing and unique creation. Instead of returning David to the factory, the mother leaves her mecha-son to fend for himself in the woods. His determination, desire to become real, and to have the love of his mother force his search to begin: A search for the blue fairy (reference to Pinocchio) that can make the unreal real. His adventures are many-well exceeding the time limits of man's existence. David will not stop even when his journey seems fruitless. Aliens may be able to grant his dream, but only for a short time. Will it be worth it?

A.I. is an ambitious, message film that tries to present a futuristic world that is not completely believable. The occurrences are possible, but the reactions of many of the main characters and the design of the mecha child leave something to be desired. If you can manage to get past these inconsistencies of action, then you will probably like this film much more. The movie is trying for too much for its own good. It contains a few stories within stories, and the resemblance to other films and tales (even by Speilberg) is too close. There are extensive extra features included with this DVD on disc 2 that help to explain some of the intent behind this project. Ultimately, it is up to the viewer to decide if the film is successful for him or her. In my case, I can't say that it was.

- Brian Bloom

Novocaine (2001)

Dr. Frank Sangster is a dentist with both a successful practice and a beautiful fiancée. Everything is going well for him until the day a certain attractive female patient walks into his office. This patient, a drug addict named Susan Ivy, returns to Sangster's office late one evening and has a romantic encounter with him. The next day, Sangster discovers that prescription drugs were stolen from his office the prior evening. When a person dies as a result of using the stolen drugs labeled from Sangster's office, the DEA shows up demanding answers. Wanting to cover his tracks of the fling with Ivy, Sangster lies to the DEA about the missing drugs. Unfortunately for him, things begin to snowball and he is drawn into an unfamiliar world of illicit sex, illegal drugs, and murder. As he attempts to work his way free, Sangster must quickly determine whom he can trust to help him out of his predicament.

Although it stars Steve Martin, Novocaine is not a laugh-out-loud comedy. It is a primarily a drama/suspense type film with a touch of dark comedy mixed in. The storyline is interesting enough to hold your attention throughout and there are a couple of plot twists that will keep you guessing until the end. Novocaine is worth checking out at least as a rental and fans of the film will want to purchase this feature packed DVD for their collection.

The overall video quality is very good. Images are clean and colors are accurate with saturated hues. There is a high degree of contrast and deep black levels. Picture defect mastering is excellent with no major flaws or compression artifacts. Using the Dolby Digital 5.1 track as the basis for this review, the soundtrack mix predominantly favors the forward channels. Dialogue is intelligible and natural sounding. The surround channels are mostly subdued, used for both ambient sound effects and music, and include a couple of split rear effects. The LFE channel is used sparingly but features deep, powerful bass.

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Special Edition

A psychopath called Buffalo Bill is kidnapping and murdering young women across the Midwest. Hoping to gain some insight into Buffalo Bill's mind, the FBI sends rookie agent Clarice Starling to interview prisoner Hannibal 'The Cannibal' Lecter. Lecter is a serial murderer, but also a brilliant psychiatrist. He agrees to help Starling on the condition that she continues to tell him details about her life. Their relationship does provide Starling with clues to find Buffalo Bill but may also bring her face-to-face with an evil that is too powerful to defeat.

Created from a new high-definition master, the video quality of this DVD is excellent, especially given that the source material is now over ten years old. Images are very sharp with subdued, but accurate colors. There is solid contrast with deep black levels. Picture defect mastering is near perfect with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. With the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review, the audio mix favors the forward channels. Dialogue is properly positioned and natural sounding. The surround channels are reserved for ambient effect and the haunting musical score. The LFE channel is used sparingly and doesn't have great depth, but is successful nonetheless in adding to the mood of the movie when it is called upon.

It is rather easy to recommend a motion picture that won five Academy Awards in 1991 including Best Actor, Actress, Director, and Picture. What I enjoyed most about Silence of the Lambs was how Anthony Hopkins made the Hannibal character so frightening simply with the way he spoke. It is rare to find a film that relies on skilled acting to scare audiences rather than over-the-top blood and gore. Hopkins' portrayal of Hannibal not only spawned a hit sequel to this film but it ultimately made the character a pop culture icon. This great-looking DVD contains some nice special features and should be a part of every DVD collection.

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Tin Men (1987)

The year is 1963 and our story focuses around the aluminum siding salesmen of the day. After having a brand new car for no more than two minutes, one of the characters gets into a car accident backing out of the sales lot. As the machismo flies and an argument ensues, the two men vow to "get back" at each other. It starts with smashing each other's cars and soon elevates to a more serious pursuit-one of the character's wife. In the background, we meet an interesting cast of salesmen and discover their various scams in the business. A new commission is formed and is trying to weed out these bad men who are taking advantage of innocent people. As the tensions rise and the two men are at each other's necks, they begin to really discover what makes them tick. In the end, they drive off in a car discussing the possibilities of a new venture

This film is really a character study of the salespeople, and the people who surround them. The way the film is written and according to the many actors who participate in the audio commentary, much of the film was unrehearsed. This brings a natural feel to the acting, and the story is quite fluid and creates a sense of realism. This film is very much a drama, and for those who are familiar with Barry Levinson, you will see his trademark style-and that's not a bad thing. If you want to see people acting like people, then you will enjoy this film.

- Brian Bloom

Panic (2000)

Alex is a middle-aged, married man with a 6-year old son. He has worked for his father in the family business for his entire adult life. However, Alex has now decided that he wants to change his life and get out of the family business. He even starts sessions with a psychologist to help him through this period of change. Unfortunately though, Alex is a second-generation hitman in the family's murder-for-hire business and his father won't let him quit. To complicate matters further, Alex meets a vibrant young woman in the waiting area of his psychologist's office and he quickly develops feelings for her.

The overall video quality is very good. Images are sharp and colors are rich with fully saturated hues. There is a high degree of contrast with dark black levels. Picture defect mastering is near perfect with no major flaws or digital compression artifacts. With the English Dolby 2.0 track serving as the basis for this review, the audio mix heavily favors the forward channels. Dialogue is properly positioned and natural sounding, although there are a couple of instances where the vocals sound strained. The surround channels are sparingly used throughout the picture for ambience and music. The LFE channel is selectively utilized and provides some moments of solid bass in the movie's soundtrack.

If you haven't heard of this movie before it is most likely because Panic is an independent film that only saw a limited theatrical run. Had the film been issued in a wide theatrical release, I believe it would have generated some respectable numbers at the box office. Nevertheless, it now has a second chance to be discovered by the masses via home video. With its interesting script and well-crafted performances from the entire cast, this DVD of Panic is certainly worth checking out at least as a rental.[Ed.: Rent or buy Focus too - see review below - and have a Wm. H. Macy Festival!]

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Stargate SG-1: Season One (1997)

Stargate SG-1 is a weekly syndicated television show that picks up where the Stargate feature film left off. The Stargate is an intergalactic gateway, developed by an alien civilization, that links Earth with planets from other solar systems. The U.S. Air Force assembles teams to travel to these other worlds via the Stargate for exploratory missions. Colonel Jack O'Neill leads the SG-1 team whose members include Dr. Daniel Jackson, Captain Carter and an alien-defector named Teal'c. The five-disc set contains the entire 21 episodes from the first season. (Disc One: Children Of The Gods, The Enemy Within, Emancipation. Disc Two: The Broca Divide, The First Commandment, Brief Candle, Cold Lazarus, Thor's Hammer. Disc Three: The Torment Of Tantalus, Bloodlines, Fire And Water, The Nox, Hathor. Disc Four: Cor-ai, Singularity, Enigma, Tin Man, Solitudes. Disc Five: There But For The Grace Of God, Politics, Within The Serpent's Grasp).

In most cases, over the course of an entire television season a television show will have its good episodes and its fillers. Stargate SG-1 is no exception with its first season. Among the stronger episodes are Children Of The Gods (this is the pilot and it does a nice job of transitioning between the film and the start of the television series), The Nox (the SG-1 crew encounter a gentle alien race who is not as defenseless as it may seem), and Tin Man (unbeknownst to the SG-1 crew, their spirits and minds are transferred into the bodies of androids).

The video quality of this DVD set is very good, especially given that this is material created for television. Occasional instances of grain are noticeable but not terribly distracting. While images are soft at times, colors are vibrant and fully saturated. The audio quality is also very good. Dialogue is properly positioned and natural sounding. The surround channels are aggressively utilized - however, the frequency of their use varies from episode to episode. There is not a great deal of low-end bass but there are some surprisingly deep rumblings in certain action sequences (such as when the gate itself is operating).

- Calvin Harding, Jr.

Life As A House (2001)

George Monroe is an unhappy man whose life has taken a turn for the worse. Immediately after being fired from his job of twenty years, he causes a scene in the workplace and storms out the door. George then collapses on the sidewalk and is rushed to the hospital. George's doctors diagnose that he is suffering from a terminal illness and that he has roughly four months to live. Keeping his medical condition a secret from his friends and family, George decides to tie up some loose ends in his life. The first loose end is to finish a project that he has been putting off for many years, that being to tear down his house and rebuild a dream home in its place. The second loose end is to reconnect with his teenage son from whom he has slowly drifted apart. With the blessing of his ex-wife, George forces his son to work on the house with him for the summer. There are many trying days but the two eventually begin to reestablish a loving relationship. However, as his health continues to diminish, George's secret may not only prevent him from finishing the house but may also unravel the new bond he has built with his son. Despite its predictable plot, this picture succeeds due to the strong performances of its actors. It is a tearjerker film that will definitely leave you thinking about your personal relationships with friends and family members.

The overall quality of the video is very good. Images are crisp and well detailed. Colors are rich and vibrant with fully saturated hues. There is nice contrast with very dark black levels. Picture defect mastering is near perfect with the only flaws being a couple of jittery scenes. The audio soundtrack mix predominantly favors the forward channels. Dialogue is always intelligible and natural sounding. The surround channels are moderately active, used for both ambient sound effects and music, and even include a couple of split rear effects. The LFE channel is mellow and is mostly used to support the music.

- Calvin Harding Jr.

Shadow Skill, Epilogue (1996)

Generations of training in the shadow skill, has made Ella Ragu a true champion and master. Years earlier she adopted a young boy, Gau Ban, and has been trying to get him to accept, trust, and open up to her. A great competition is held where many warriors compete for the title of Sevalle. Some do not intend to play fair and threaten both Ella and her young brother. They band together with an age-old adversary who has become a friend in order to fill their pockets. As they struggle with each other along their journey, they learn more and more about their relationship. The friend is made aware of her obligation, and must again face Ella in battle. In the end, it is uncertain whether they will live or die, and what part the young Gau Ban will play.

In the Epilogue, we find the relationship strengthening between the siblings as they head out to the grave site of the boy's parents. He has been growing and trying to master the Shadow Skill. There is something missing, but he will soon discover his inner strength. He must battle his sister in order to surpass her skill and become the next in line of the Shadow Skill.

The animation is good in these two movies, and sound is good as well. The dubbing is fairly good, and is preferred to trying to watch and read the subtitles at the same time. Also, the English version is in Dolby Digital 5.1! If you like these types of combat animated Japanese films, then you won't be disappointed.

- Brian Bloom

Macross Plus- Movie Edition (1995)

The year is 2040 A.D. and a beautiful young singer has taken the world by storm. She is appearing on planet Eden for one of the biggest musical performances ever. The fact is, she isn't even human, and the amazing connection that she has with her audience is due to emotional control-a sort of brainwashing of which only the people in charge are aware. Meanwhile, the military is testing a brainwave-controlled flying machine with a few different test pilots. Two rival pilots are vying for the position, and it turns out they have a long past together. The producer of the young singer was also a childhood friend, and they are soon to meet again. There was a lover's triangle in the old days, and the past is about to become the present. Life is tough for her-dealing with old friends-and the fact that her singing career never went anywhere. But there is much more to the story than that, and when the scientist who programs "Sharon" decides to do a little tinkering, everything gets out of control. It is up to the two pilots to come to terms with their past, and band together to help their love to escape harm's way.

This is one of the better-known animated films, and for good reason. The story is better than most films, and definitely geared towards adults. There is more drama, and it creates more interest in the goings-on. The music is pretty good, too, and this helps with the pace of the film, and helps to make the film's subject matter more realistic. Picture and sound are very good, but beware, there is no English language version-only subtitles.

- Brian Bloom

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