DVD Video Reviews for March 2002

We'll start this month with three music videos of great interest, and conclude with two artist bios...

PUCCINI: Tosca (complete opera) (1976)

Based on a fin de siècle tragedy of thwarted lovers, Tosca is a stirring opera about revenge and sacrifice. The forces of clericism and Bonapartism clash with each other. It is Puccini's most political opera, his Fidelio. In fact, its theme featuring a rebel as the hero clashing with an arch villain who's an avid churchgoer made both Puccini and his audience uneasy on opening night in 1900. Italy was in turmoil following the king's assassination and a terrorist bombing. Staging the opera was comparable to the Boston performance of John Adam's The Death of Klinghoffer shortly after September 11. But all went well and Tosca has deservedly soared into the repertoire, far surpassing Manon Lescaut and La Fanciulla del West.

This 26-year old film is both vocally enthralling and visually stunning. Director Gianfranco de Bosio uses a transparent style that doesn't draw attention to itself with cute affects. Even the Act III opening scene featuring the shepherd boy's song is well-blocked, complete with goats and a boy soprano whose peasant-like voice doesn't crack. As Mario Cavaradossi, Placido Domingo is as convincing as he is as Pinkerton in the recently re-released Madama Butterfly. Listen to his gloating cry of victory when he hears of the Bonapartist victory and the intense and brief trio that follows. They will shoot through you like arrows. His "E lucevan le stele" is so desolate and sad, it could bring tears to even a neophyte listener. As Tosca, Raina Kabaivanska has never been lovelier and more animated. While not as earthy as Maria Callas or as volatile as Angela Gheorghiu, (whose Tosca DVD I eagerly await), she infuses the famous --although misplaced--"Vissi d'arte" with the right balance of confusion and anguish. Her transformation from a woman plagued by jealousy and religiosity to a fiery warrior exhilarates and astounds. When she stabs Scarpia and screams "Mori!" you should feel like cheering. While not the angriest Tosca (her fist-shaking is unconvincing), her deep-throated "die in damnation" line rivals that of Callas. Sherrill Milnes is a venal Scarpia, leering while sipping on his Spanish wine and sings well, but never seems dissipated enough. Perhaps La Scala's opera museum should have lent him Tito Gobbi's white whig.

--Peter Bates


BACH: The Goldberg Variations

Filmed and edited between l976 and l981 this portion from the larger production titled Glenn Gould Plays Bach is listed on the DVD notes as the first time it has been available aside from television broadcasts. That is incorrect - it was available on laserdiscs, although not with as good image resolution as on this DVD. The film begins with an informal conversation between Gould and filmmaker Monsaingeon, who in addition to his films published three books in France about Gould. (One was titled "No, I'm not always the eccentric.") Their conversation goes into the decision Gould had made to re-record in l981 his classic 1955 version of the Goldbergs. Among the reasons were his re-consideration of his interpretations with added wisdom over the years and the fact that the first recording was only mono.

Monsaingeon also filmed the second recording session. A typical video of a typical pianist playing this work would be a big bore, but with Gould's eccentricities and the filmmaker's creative variety of shots (one of the variations even removes the fingerboard so you can see the piano action in action along with the closeups of Gould's slender long fingers) this is a riveting performance to watch. Gould's posture is terrible - hunched over the keyboard - and the other outstanding eccentricity is watching what he does with whichever hand occasionally is free for a moment. (At one point he seems to be putting a spell on someone with the free hand.) The PCM tracks are not just slightly better but hugely cleaner than the Dolby Digital.

- John Sunier


STRAVINSKY: The Rite of Spring; Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1993)

The video opens and closes with the impressive fountain in front of the opera house. The short work for winds opens the program and the short head shot interview with Maestro Boulez comes during the "intermission" before the Rite of Spring. In the talk Boulez mentions discussions with Stravinsky about his works and details about the challenges of conducting the Rite and its enduring popularity with concert audiences. The camerawork is excellent and Boulez' interpretation tends toward the extreme preciseness of the composer's versions rather than the more impactful abandon of many other versions, but is an enjoyable visual and audio experience of a watershed work of 20th century music.

- John Sunier


Crouching Tiger / Hidden Dragon (2000)
Superbit Version

As a winner of four Academy Awards and ten nominations, most readers of this section have probably already seen the film either in theaters or on the original DVD. The action-packed martial arts masterpiece showed that you don't need to be Superman to fly. Having a pair of male and female master warriors as the leads was inspired. They battle not only the evil-doers but their own unrequited love.

The main focus here is that this is the new Sony Superbit version of the film, with a much higher digital sampling rate and less data reduction than standard DVDs. It's something like SACD and DVD-A in audio. The sampling rate is so high, in fact, that there is no longer space on a single disc for any extras, so the fascinating documentary on the original DVD - interviewing the actors and showing how the complex harnesses and wires were employed for the flying choreography - is not provided here. That was actually the biggest difference I noted.

Now to the screen image: There was a subtle improvement over the image details, color, and apparent depth of the image on my large screen. I don't believe with a set under 30 inches the enhancement would even be visible. I compared several times the opening of scenes 10 and 18 on the two DVDs. The first is a group of people fixing food and eating outdoors in some picturesque ruins. There was a bit more color and depth in the SuperBit DVD but only slightly. In Scene 18 there is a group of men on horseback with the rebel chief on his horse against the blue sky. The sky was bluer in the SuperBit version and the subtle color differences among the various horses was apparent - in the standard DVD they all looked about the same. However, a more annoying artifact was present equally on both - overdone edge enhancement around the body of the chieftain against the blue sky. And this was with the sharpness on my Pioneer RPTV turned way down, as it should be for best results. If you have a high end front projector the additional cost of the SuperBit titles might be worth it, but I don't feel for most viewers it is that dramatic an enhancement. What the industry needs is an HDTV version of DVD - not the new Digital VHS.

- John Sunier


Gattaca (1997)
SuperBit version

A recent sci-fi thriller about a near-future America which is completely obsessed with genetic perfection, sort of a Brave New World squared. Hawke plays a man from the lower all-too-human class who risks all to get a position intended only for super-men who benefitted from gene manipulation at their birth. One of the attractive things about the film to me was its ingenious use of an already-existing building to represent a future world environment- the Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center in San Rafael, California.

The screen images are impressively detailed and have great depth, and portions in low light situations were perfectly visible without noticeable artifacts. However, I didn't have a copy of the original DVD to compare. The DTS tracks provided on all SuperBit releases are usually louder, with more information on the surrounds than the Dolby Digital tracks also provided.

- John Sunier


Coup De Torchon (1981)
(US Title: Clean Slate)

Adapted from a U.S. pulp novel set in the American South and transplanted by Tavernier to French West Africa prior to the Second World War, this is a heady stew mixing colonialism, corruption, racism, oppression,and prejudice. The put-upon ineffectual police chief, ridiculed by everyone in town except his mistress, finally gets revenge in a crime spree rubbing out all those who stepped on him. A black crime comedy, but raised above that basic classification by Tavernier's and Noiret's artful direction and acting. Huppert isn't bad either in her role as the tasty strumpet beaten by her uncouth husband. Seems to have been a bit of fading of the original film stock, but Criterion did its usual fine job of resuscitating the images. Anyway it's not inappropriate for somewhat dusty images since the town is a dusty dump anyway.

- John Sunier


Black Narcissus (1947)

This was a very major production for Britain's film industry in l947, and on one level its story of the establishment and then abandonment of a British Anglican nunnery and school high in the Himalayas stood also for Britain's abandonment of its India colony, which occurred later that same year. The grandeur and perfection of the screen images is spectacular, in spite of the painted mountain backgrounds looking crude by today's special effects standards. The composition, lighting and color of each shot is so perfectly accomplished that it makes the next movie you will see look perfectly slapdash. The use of color to advance the plot and details about the characters is especially intriguing. And nobody set a foot outside the London-area studio, let alone the Himalayas!

This is not an action film by any means - the movement is primarily in the seething emotions of the characters going on just below the surface - very British of them. In spite of the fact that the moral conflicts and sexual awakenings portrayed didn't happen to their nuns, the Catholic Legion of Decency got very emotional about Black Narcissus and insisted that 13 minutes be censored from the U.S. release. And in spite of that unkind cut the film won a brace of Academy Awards. The compelling musical score is by Brian Easdale, who conducts the London Symphony. He also did the glorious symphonic score for Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes.

- John Sunier


The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis (1970)

The influence of Vittorio De Sica is obvious in the lush and dream-like sequences in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. The film won Best Foreign Film in 1971, and for good reason. The story circles around a group of friends, Jews and non-Jews, during the time of fascism and WWII in Italy. The Finzi-Continis are a rich family with a beautiful daughter named Micol. She is the apple of more than a few gentlemen's eyes. A poorer, old school friend has strong feelings for her, but she will not yield. As the restrictions on the Jews grow worse, he is forced to continue his college studies outside the school, and in the huge library of the Finzi-Continis. This only makes things harder, and the need for flight becomes greater. In the end, some will escape, and others will not.

The sound of the DVD is okay, but the picture appears slightly washed out with a soft focus (intentionally?) The camerawork is quite beautiful in parts, using natural lighting and music along with motion to convey a touching emotional attachment to certain scenes. The drama is introduced at key moments to produce just the right amount of impact, and the characters quickly become alive to the viewer. Without giving away the film, it is clear that this movie is about hope and sadness at the same time--a sadness for not only the good things in the past that are gone, but the bad things that can never be made right again.

- Brian Bloom


Withnail And I (1986)

Withnail And I tells the story of out-of-work actors during the 60s living under terrible conditions. They are disgusted with their situations, but seemingly unable to do anything about them. They are both waiting for that one big break, but in the meantime they consume drugs, alcohol, and not much else. In an attempt for a change of pace (that they believe will do them good,) they head off to the country to stay in Withnail's uncle's place. Their survival is soon in question as they do everything they can to obtain some food. After Uncle arrives, his lust for Withnail's friend is almost overpowering, but they barely escape back to the city after a job finally comes to the friend.

The documentary included with the film explains how much of the story is based on real events and people. The information given about the film is very enlightening, and would almost be worth watching before the feature. Apparently, there is a large cult following, almost like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Colors are soft and picture is a little dull, but extremely low in video noise. The picture is not as sharp as many new anamorphic transfers. Sound is almost entirely dialogue driven, and mono, but aside from the English accent, completely understandable.

- Brian Bloom


The Dominici Affair (2001)

This DVD is a documentary of the making of a particular episode of the Orson Welles series "Around The World." The disc is divided into seven sections and the credits; including an introduction to the event, discovering the elements of the story, working with new interview styles, cutting the film and finding the truth, the restoration (1978-1999), the actual episode reconstructed from Welles's notes, and the information on the reopened case.

The Dominici case was shocking in its time. In the French town of Lurs, an old sheepherder discovered some Brits on his land during the night and murdered the entire family. The details are sketchy, but with the many interviews, it is possible to get an idea of what could have occurred. Old man Dominici was, in fact, convicted of the crime. One of his sons is convinced he was the murderer while the other was convinced that he was not guilty.

The narration on the disc is clear and distinct. Most of the disc is in black and white although some of the interviews are in color. Since the episode was never aired, Welles's final cut was never really finished, and the producers of this DVD construct the film that we see. It makes use of all the materials available at the time and is quite complete. It seems there was opposition to the making of the episode, but that did not deter the filmmakers. There were a couple of innovations made by Welles during the filming; including synchronous sound (in a TV interview) and compositional choices that were never before used. It is interesting to note how much emotion was provoked by the murder of an innocent family (including a young girl.) These days it seems that murder is so commonplace that such a tale may not inspire shock or even interest. Nonetheless, The Dominici Affair is very well done.

-Brian Bloom


Monsieur Rene Magritte (1978)

In time for the current surrealist exhibitions that just opened in New York City, this DVD probably has more interest for the general public than most artist film biographies. Magritte is surely second only to Dali in the public mind when it comes to surrealists. There is a good deal of archival film footage, including interviews with Magritte himself; he speaks about how the suicide of his mother in his childhood inspired themes in his paintings. The man was unusual in finding his wild inspirations in everyday surroundings. He didn't even have a special studio but painted in the neat and proper dining room of his house, putting everything away before dinner. The Belgian artist decided to wear a suit and Homburg hat, eschewing completely the normal artist dress and demeanor. A hint of the quirky nature of this film about the quirky artist is hearing the names of the two composers' works sharing the soundtrack: Bartok and Roger Waters.

- John Sunier


Picasso (1985)

Winner at a Festival of Films on Art in Montreal, this appraisal of the work of Picasso employs images filmed at many different museums in Europe and Japan. The many contrasting styles the painter adopted during his long life are shown, as well as places he lived and painted. While there is no interview with Picasso, a section from the film in which he paints on glass in front of the camera is used at several points. One of the two narrators on the soundtrack had a very low and soporific voice which succeeded in lulling me to sleep at one point. A perfect DVD for insomniacs.

It was surprising to find a film of this date made for television with a stereo soundtrack. The appropriate sound effects behind the narrators at some points spread out into an enveloping surround field using the surround option built into my Pioneer RPTV.

- John Sunier


Return to Home Page for MAR. 2002

Back to Top of This Page

To Index of Reviews for Month