DVD Video Reviews for July-August 2002, Pt. 2

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Recording "The Producers"
A Musical Romp with Mel Brooks (2001)

Normally promotional videos of this type are a bit of a bore for anyone that isn't a huge fan of whatever big production they are promoting. In this case I don't see how anyone who eventually gets to see Brook's record-breaking Broadway musical made from his 1968 movie with Mostel and Wilder could avoid being a huge fan. This video was made during the studio recording session for the original cast CD and includes 14 of the songs from the dozen-Tony Awards musical comedy. Brooks acts as the host, explaining the plot line and talking about the stars, and that alone assures plenty of laughs. Everyone seems to be having a great time, and it's also interesting to see how a soundtrack album for a musical is put together. It's not exactly purist single-mike recording technique here - everyone is wearing their AKG headphones and the different featured voices are acoustically isolated from one another, the band and the chorus. If you don't have the CD as yet you will surely want it after watching the hilarious and entertaining recording session.

- John Sunier

Carla Bley - Live in Montreal (1983)

I own many of Carla Bley's recordings on LP and CD, but this is the first time I have seen her in action. That's surprising, because with her unique original compositions, heavy-hitting band members and kooky appearance - with her huge mop of blonde hair hiding her face down to her nose - this is music made for video viewing. All even tunes during this appearance at the Montreal Jazz Festival are Carla's originals, and they combine old and new, European and American jazz approaches, avant and straight-ahead big band, and sometimes a kooky sense of humor. This is heard especially in her The Lone Arranger, in which she has members of the band ask her nonsense questions in poor French about horses and cowboys, tied in with the loping Western rhythm of the tune. She plays mostly a B3 organ throughout this concert, but there is also a pianist. A young Joe Lovano is heard on tenor sax, and it's interesting that at this time both her current husband, trumpeter Michael Mantler, and her future partner, bassist Steve Swallow, are in the band. Selections are; The Lord Is Listening to You, Heavy Heart, Walking Battery Woman, Caucasian Bird Riffles, Ups and Downs, The Lone Arranger, Battleship.

- John Sunier

Portrait of England: Treasure Houses & Gardens
Music by Wynton Marsalis (1989)

This is one of those travelogues without narration, matching beautiful landscape cinematography with classical music on the soundtrack. In this it's similar to the Naxos Musical Journeys series. In addition to the lovely English countryside with woodlands, pastures, rolling hills and dramatic coastlines it also spends visual time on ruined and still-standing castles, mansions, country homes, formal gardens and so on. Some of the footage consists of dramatic aerial photography. There is in the enclosed notes a list of the locations and small map, but they are not specifically identified on the screen. The music comes from three different CDs on Sony Classical featuring Marsalis. There are concertos for solo and three trumpets by Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Telemann, Purcell, Pachelbel and Molter. While enjoyable enough, I found myself wishing the video were 1) widescreen - in keeping with the expansive landscapes, 2) higher resolution - it looks about as soft as a laserdisc, and 3) that the music were in 5.1 surround for a more complete experience.

- John Sunier

Miro - Theatre of Dreams (1978)

Another in the series of excellent video documentaries done by the BBC on various leading 20th century artists. Miro's work, like that of Dali's in a previously-reviewed DVD, comes across well on TV and is readily identifiable. The Catalonian painter was 85 when this was filmed and still very active, planning among other things an original theater production using costumes bringing to life some of the odd fantasy creatures of his paintings and prints. This leader in the Spanish Surrealist movement speaks in interview sections of his life with other great artists, including Picasso, Breton, Ernst and Tanguy. There is also an extended sequence of Miro quietly painting in silence as though the viewer were just an invisible observer in his studio.

- John Sunier


Helmut Newton - Frames From the Edge (1988)

Winner of an best direction award at the Paris Art Film Festival, this documentary takes a closeup view of the world of this very international photographer famous for his uniquely erotic fashion and creative photography. Based in Monaco but constantly traveling to exotic locales on assignments, Newton seems honest and without pretense in his conversations with director Maben. He makes no excuses for what turns him on visually and which he thus tries to achieve in his photographs. He expresses his disdain for the robot-like poses and non-Renaissance body types of the typical fashion model. There are also fascinating interviews with and displays of portrait (and more) photography with past subjects Catherine Deneuve, Charlotte Rampling and Sigourney Weaver. As a one time photographer myself I found it surprising how minimalist his technical approach was - often no assistants at all, using natural light, and just one or two trusted cameras.

- John Sunier


Starship Troopers (1997)
Special Edition (2 discs)

Sci-fi great Robert A. Heinlein wrote the book on which this wild war-in space epic was based. Crazed Dutch director Verhoeven (Total Recall, Showgirls) fashioned what seems on the surface to be a completely gung ho sci-fi epic with outrageous scenes you would never have seen on Star Trek or Battlestar Gallactica. And that's the way it came across to me when I first saw it in the theaters. However, I spent some time with just a few of the many extras on these two DVDs (there's also some discussions of the spectacular special effects, such as when the attacking fleet of starships is decimated by missiles fired from the planet by the bugs). After hearing Verhoeven's commentary, I have quite a different take on the movie. It could be he is just pulling our leg and trying to defend his film by attaching a deeply serious philosophical/political message post production, but here's the gist of it: The film opens with a recruiting video designed to get young men and women to sign up to serve in the intergallactic army that is traveling to a distant plant populated by giant bugs to fight and destroy them since they intend to destroy Earth. Here and there during the film similar videos are seen, and the film even ends with one. The TV outlet is obviously operated by the military and the ruler of the nation appears to be from the military. The training camp section shows a highly regimented sort of military organization. Uniforms look extremely fascist-like. As the film proceeds more and more hints of the overall fascist society are worked in, until in the final scene some of the military experts who examine a captured "smart bug" are wearing long coats and caps that look exactly like Nazi officers.

Verhoeven says his mission was to give the viewer a gut-level feeling of what it would really be like to live in a fascist society, where beauty and brawn are the keys to success, where you must risk your life fighting in the army in space in order to get citizenship (unless you have money). Fortunately I looked at the extras prior to watching the DVD or I might have turned the feature off in disgust partway thru. I was reminded of Ian McKlellan's Richard III, which was a bit more up front with its fascist trappings. I don't know how much of the audience for Starship Troopers trooped away with this political warning message, but understanding it certainly made for a different sort of viewing experience. Incidently, the picture quality and digitally-mastered sound are entirely space-worthy, and the navigation of the extra features are presented to make you feel like a boot camp newbie watching required training visuals.

- John Sunier


All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Another important Hollywood classic restored by Criterion with plenty of associated materials to make the movie experience more complete. Fortunately for them this one was still shot in Technicolor, which meant it hadn't faded to grape juice color and could thus be transferred to DVD with all of the exaggerated expressionistic colors that Sirk drew out of the already overly-saturated Technicolor process. The tear-jerker concerns the loneliness of a matriarch trapped by the negative reactions of her children and country club friends when she takes up with her much younger gardener hunk played by Hudson. Sirk has a unique way of bringing the mores of the period into bold relief just as he does the colors. A friend dubbed this "a subversive little film." Not only the color but the super-artistic cinematography where every frame is a perfect composition shows that this is not your ordinary Hollywood 50s production but one of Sirk's lovingly-crafted filmic views of life. The lengthy written essays by German avant filmmaker Fassbinder are a kick; they read like essays handed in by an enthusiastic foreign student in a college film history class - one having no direct experience with American life and mores.

- John Sunier

Cries and Whispers (1972)

Maria and Karin come to the aid of their sister Agnes who is dying of cancer. They try to put aside their petty concerns and disagreements but are thoroughly unsuccessful at the task. Meanwhile Agnes escapes the horror of her situation by remembering special moments of her past life - touchingly captured visually by Nykvist. The interior often has blood-red walls and many shots fade to red instead of black, all pointing up the horrors of not only Agnes' illness but a remembered scene in which Maria's husband stabs himself upon learning of her adultery and yet another intimate scene of self-mutilation. Extreme closeup shots of faces that run for a long time are Bergman trademarks, at times making one think of a film shot for television some years ago. Image and sound quality are superb, however. Some may say it's just painful dark Nordic brooding on film, but it's considered a classic, and furthermore Woody Allen loves it!

- John Sunier

A Beautiful Mind (2002)
(2 disc Awards Edition)

A magnificent achievement that did deserve its Academy Awards. I believe if I hadn't seen the film in the theaters originally, I would still look at the extras before viewing the DVD rather than after. The commentaries by the screenwriter are especially interesting, and it is also edifying to see and hear the real John Nash. Russell Crowe did an amazing job of playing the brilliant but mentally-challenged mathematician. The highly original method Ron Howard used to give the audience some of the perspective of a mentally unbalanced person is very effective as a visual device. He and screenwriter Goldsman decided on substituting people and happenings that Nash saw but which were only in his mind, instead of the actual affliction Nash had - which was hearing voices in his head only. That wouldn't have translated as well to the big screen (however it would be a great audio drama!).

The deleted scenes are worth checking out. In common with that category of most deleted DVD extras, one can see why the director edited them out - in spite of the fact that often they make some aspects of the plot more easily understood. The extras in general are beautifully done and easy to navigate, the feature's image quality is superb, with lots of contrast and detail, and the DD 5.1 soundtrack aids the viewer's involvement in the gripping story. This is especially true of some of the scenes of Nash's imagined escapades as a spy threatened by the Russians - the surround sound effects add immeasurably to the pseudo-realism.

- John Sunier

Focus (2001)

One of the best roles Wm. H. Macy has had, as a man in an American town during World War II who - only because he is following his boss's dictum to get himself fitted with some glasses - suddenly becomes identified as a Jew and the victim of first subtle, then serious prejudice and unfair treatment. His new wife works for a Jewish firm and their fascist neighbors think she is also a Jew. Macy's gradual transition from someone who simply fits in with the prevailing racism without thinking about it, to a man who begins to recognize it and fight it is believable and moving. Dealing with the serious challenges begins to cause rifts in the couple's previously sunny relationship. But by the end they have decided to work together for the rights of both themselves and their embattled Jewish neighbors. Meat Loaf? He plays the fascist-member next-door neighbor, and very well indeed. This film would make a great double feature with the classic Gentleman's Agreement.

- John Sunier

The Watcher In The Woods (1980)

There was a time when Disney was not making happy animated films. This film, based on a book, would definitely be considered a thriller/horror/science-fiction film. An American family is on vacation to stay in an old house in England owned by a strange woman who resides there as well. From the moment they arrive, the eldest daughter feels a presence in the woods and soon, the youngest is briefly possessed. Strange occurrences continue to happen as wind appears to come from nowhere and the elder daughter hears strange voices, and has visions as well. She is insistent about discovering the truth behind the disappearance of the old woman's daughter, Karen, who seems to be the cause. Other than three members of the town, who were children in an old chapel in the woods at the time, no one really knows what happened. The body was never found. In order to get to the truth, she attempts to reenact the ceremony that took place that fateful night and get Karen back.

The sound has been remastered into a multi-channel mix and sounds a good deal better than the average horror flick. The camera moves back and forth in first person view giving the feeling of someone/thing watching the characters. For those accustomed to fright films, this film will not be that scary. I'm not in the habit of watching many films in the horror genre, so I managed to startle a couple of times. The acting, with the exception of Bette Davis, is not all that impressive. The special effects are dated, and the film does not have enough sci-fi to it to really grab the addicts of that genre. The film was entertaining for the most part though, and I did want to figure out what happened. The ending is a little soft and mushy, and the alternate endings are not a whole lot better, although there is more explanation in Alternate Ending 2 that helps to fill in the missing elements of the story. This longer ending is the restored version of the film that was cut due to bad reception and length. You decide if it makes the film any better.

- Brian Bloom

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