DVD Reviews for March/April 01 (Pt. 1 of 2)

click on each cover to go directly to the review

Usually we'be been covering the feature films first, followed by the music video DVDs. This month let's turn that around =

FRANCIS POULENC: Dialogues des Carmélites
Opera in three acts and twelve scenes

Although composed between 1953 and 1956, Poulenc's Dialogue des Carmélites harks back to a previous era, before the encroachment of atonality. Thus it is an eminently listenable opera, and despite its grim subject matter, it has considerable attractions, not the least of which are the lovely melodious lines that place the soloists at the forefront of the music.

This DVD recording has numerous features to recommend it, among them credible and expressive acting (with no corresponding reduction in the quality of singing), lush sound, creative lighting, and cinematic close-ups that enhance the psychological drama of this rather unorthodox work. Anne Sophie Schmidt as Blanche de la Force is convincingly high strung and fearful. In the unfolding series of vignettes, she gradually gains wisdom and self-knowledge ("I was born in fear" and "Perhaps fear is like an illness"). Finally, having overcome her fear of death, she joins her sisters in martyrdom. Although Schmidt has an unfortunate tendency to sing out of the side of her mouth, her great musicality, lovely legatos, and uniformly excellent acting ultimately make this initially distracting fault insignificant. Along the way, she is helped by the delightful singing and acting of Patricia Petibon, who as Soeur Constance is the unwitting philosopher of the story and serves as a foil for Blanche. Petibon's singing is charmingly light and frothy, a latter-day version of Mozart's Zerlina. Her character is full of flights of fancy, as in "We die not just for ourselves but for each other. Or sometimes even instead of each other." Blanche can only look in astonishment as these pearls of wisdom incongruously spill out of the girlish Constance.

Nadine Denize as Madame de Croissy, the prioress, is frighteningly real. Her protracted death scene is among the most realistic in all of opera. Valerie Millot as her replacement is less effective; her shrill, uneven singing and somewhat forced acting make her the least credible of the singers. Mère Marie, the moral center of the story, is attractively sung and convincingly acted by Hedwig Fassbender. And Laurence Dale is moving as Blanche's concerned brother.

The highly dramatic ending caps this visually artistic production with its beautiful tableaux of devotional life. As the nuns sing "Salve Regina," the guillotine that claims them one by one is heard in all its scathing intensity in a moving and expertly rendered scene.

My only gripe about this DVD is that the English subtitles lag behind the sung words and that the stage directions (in French only) are partly off screen.

-Dalia Geffen

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Gimme Shelter is a rock and roll film starring the Rolling Stones. It tells the story of what happened to bands wanting to give free concerts in the 1970's. Also appearing briefly are The Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Ike & Tina Turner. The film is done in documentary style, so if you are expecting to see a good concert straight through then you will be somewhat disappointed. There are scenes of the Stones watching a video of the concert, answering calls at the radio station, meeting with the organizers, footage of the crowd and the craziness happening at Altamont Speedway--the final location of the concert. The video is completely redone and looks great. There is more story to tell about the on goings, but let's just say that the Hell's Angels figure in prominently, and the concert doesn't exactly go smoothly. Some of the songs on the disc include:

If you are a Stones fan then this disc is a must see. If you are looking for a good straight concert video, then be forewarned. This disc does have a lot of extras including footage and photographs from the show which make it very interesting from a historical standpoint. Worth checking out.

- Brian Bloom

SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto; FALLA: Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Take two of the most glorious, audience-pleasing orchestral works to be found in the standard repertory, have them performed by one of the world's finest orchestras, give them a superbly-directed visual translation to the video screen, and view it with state-of-the-art DVD image and sound quality, and you have a production that is sure to convince legions of music lovers that there really are some first-rate classical music video experiences worth owning.

Director Bob Coles has done one of the best jobs of presenting symphonic music on video that I have ever viewed. The closeups of the various instruments and sections always make sense musically and never does one glimpse a French horn player, for example, dumping out his condensation on the floor while you are listening to a flute solo on the soundtrack. The ArtHaus series all have the highest resolution image quality I have seen on any music videos and the audio tracks - whether two channel PCM or 5.1 - are all uniformly clean, widerange and well-balanced. Violinist Vengerov makes one's neck ache to see his crippled playing posture, but his tone is lovely and deeply felt. Placido Domingo comes in for an unusual conducting stint in the three impressionistic Falla movements for piano and orchestra, since Barenboim is more than busy at the keyboard. This DVD series is so much better in every way than the typical PBS symphony telecast that I doubt I'll bother to watch one of those again.

- John Sunier

Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1987)

Surprisingly, this is the first documentary on this seminal figure in modern jazz. It is based on the book by Gary Giddins - the frequent talking head in Ken Burn's recent PBS Jazz series. While actual film footage of Parker in performance is in short supply, there are many photos, and extended interviews with those who were close to him, including his first and second wives, jazz giants Jay McShann, Dizzy Gillespie, Frank Morgan and Roy Hanes, plus jazz authority Leonard Feather and others. The soundtrack includes many of Bird's best recordings. Altogether a fine portrayal of the life and tribulations of this genius of jazz who just couldn't kick his heroin habit which eventually killed him.

- John Henry

The Spirit of Samba - The Black Music of Brazil (1982)

Brazilian musical culture in general is one of the most exciting and original in the world. At the core of most of it is the samba, and this documentary serves to highlight the African origins of the music and dance and its influence on many different strains of folk, popular and jazz music. The ghettos of Rio are visited, as are the samba schools that are so important to the lives of the poor blacks who live for the four days of Carnaval each year. Included are short performance clips of such leading Brazilian singer-performers as Gilberto Gil, Milton Nascinmento and Chico Barque. African-derived religions such as Macumba are shown. The film is a bit dated now since it was made in l982 - among other things it mentioned the political dictatorship which is long gone. Also, the image and color quality is quite dated looking, often over-exposed and washed out; it seems some video adjustment of this could have been made, but perhaps the original was too faded to do better than what we see. Sound is passable but has little stereo quality - could be re-channeled.

- John Henry


Having heard of this 1964 performance for several decades, and having listened to it on a scratchy LP, I was overjoyed to receive the DVD. I wasn't disappointed by Burton's performance, which is no less than extraordinary. The medium fell somewhat short, however.

This 1964 stage performance was filmed in black & white "Theatrofilm with Electronovision," which amounted to more of a short-lived distribution process rather than a technological breakthrough. It was essentially a videotaped version of a stage performance using several cameras and simultaneously broadcast to selected theaters across the country. Then all versions of the tape were allegedly destroyed ­ except the one given to Burton and stored by his wife Sybil. The sound is variable: depending on whether the characters are facing the camera or not, the lines are delivered distinctly or muffled. Most of the time you can make them out. The pans and zooms are awkward, resulting in amateurish and infrequent close-ups.

But these shortcomings don't seem to matter. Burton transcends the limits of the technology to give one of the best performances of his career. He is entirely believable as Hamlet, giving the role his own unique touches. When taunting Polonius, he delivers the line "Words, Words, Words" idiosyncratically, imparting different shades of meaning to each utterance. When his father's ghost (played by an off-screen John Gielgud) tells him "The serpent that did sting thy father's life/Now wears his crown," he replies "My uncle!" with an I-knew-it trace of glee. He is volatile, witty, acrobatic, and more sympathetic than Kenneth Branagh rendition of Hamlet (1998). Other actors also excel in their roles, such as Hume Cronyn as a fussy but cagey Polonius, Alfred Drake a smoothly devious and efficient Claudius, and Eileen Herlie as the "seeming-virtuous queen," so arch at concealing what she knows, then plunged by her son into a barbed and searing angst.

This Hamlet strides between Sir Lawrence Olivier's famed courtly prince and Branagh's more cynical one. As with any compelling historical document, you can overlook the wrinkles and jagged edges.

--Peter Bates

Courage Under Fire (1996)

Courage Under Fire starts off in the Persian Gulf War with Lt. Colonel Nathaniel Serling in the middle of a tank attack. The conflict has its problems, but in the end he is home in one piece with only his conscience to bother him. He has been given the job of investigating the first woman candidate for the Medal of Honor. Having responded to a call, the medic helicopter carrying the main cast offers bravery in the line of duty to save the lives of Americans who are stranded behind enemy lines. Their helicopter is brought down, and during the night they are under heavy attack.

As Colonel Serling attempts to delve deeper into the happenings on that fateful night he gets resistance from all of the helicopter crew. Not satisfied with anything less than the truth, he relentlessly pursues it at the risk of losing his own position. As each story begins to fill out more and more the reality of what occured, it becomes clear there may be a conspiracy among the crew members about what really happened.

In the end we realize that we all must live with ourselves, our actions dictating who we are, and our beliefs helping to guide us in those actions. There are several moments of understanding, emotional connection, and philosophy in this film. Although it has it faults, and the plot sometimes gets diverted into less important areas and subplots, generally this movie is entertaining and worth a look.

- Brian Bloom

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

A man and a woman share a car on a trip to New York City in the late 70's. They banter about the differences about men and women and both agree how different they are. They split up and go their own separate ways. They keep running into each other in different parts of town, and are always in different stages of relationships--one involved with a longtime boyfriend, the other married. They talk for a while and then split up again. At one point they meet, something happens, and they end up becoming friends. The movie poses the question of whether a man and a woman can have a relationship free from the reins of sex. Harry and Sally are intent to prove this is the case, and as the years go by and they both remain alone, helping each other, philosophizing about life and all that relationships are, and falling in love with each other.

When Harry Met Sally is a wonderful example of a modern day romantic comedy drawn from the experiences of the director and writer of the film. Both Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal seem to be perfect for the parts, and the supporting cast makes this movie even better. We all want to believe that there is that perfect person for us, and that the characters in the film will see that it is they who are perfect together. Some scenes are quite memorable and will remain funny conversation pieces about film in general. There are a few extras which are noteworthy. There are some deleted scenes which give a little more background to the film, but importantly, the documentary on the film really helps define the purpose and offer much in the way of information and explanation of the characters.

If you haven't seen this movie and even remotely like romantic comedies, then you need to go pick this one up. It is a good example of how you can joke about relationships, and still impart a lot of real emotion and thought about love, loneliness, and life.

- Brian Bloom

Babette's Feast (1989)

Winner of the Academy Award for best foreign film, this delightful fable is based on a short story of Isak Dinesen. In the 19th century two devout daughters of a now-dead clergyman father have through a series of unusual turns a French maid escaping from civil war in France. Life is simple and poor in the small village on the desolate coast of Denmark and self-denial is its overriding style. The maid Babette (who has been working only for room and board) wins a lottery and is able to go back to France. But before going she prepares an extravagant gourmet French feast for the village which greatly tests their piety. They fear losing their souls if they enjoy themselves too much. Gorgeous photography and fine acting throughout. Excellent picture quality except when there is a sudden movement such as a seagull flying past - then digital artifacts distract a bit. I saw this shortly after the current Chocolat; very similar storylines - but as expected considering the very different centuries and locations in which the two stories take place, the 20th-century tale of comestible seduction proves more hip and enjoyable.

- John Sunier


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