DVD Reviews for May 2001, Pt. 2 of 2


LEOS JANÁCEK: The Cunning Little Vixen, from stories by Rudolf Tesnohlídek

If you are looking for outstanding costumes, exciting choreography, and an unabashedly saccharine celebration of the cycles of nature, look no further than Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen, on DVD. This delightful production features an assortment of wondrous woodlands creatures-foxes, badgers, hens, butterflies, mosquitoes, dragonflies, and owls-charmingly and convincingly portrayed with colorful costumes and festive choreography. The contrast between the splendidly spontaneous animals and the all-too-human and ineffectual characters in the opera, who are drab, boring, and depressed and whose mortality weighs on them heavily, could not be in sharper relief. While the people bemoan their physical decline, the animals display a glorious vitality and exuberance, with nary a fear of death. And when death does occur in the animal kingdom, it seems part of the natural order of things, and soon the eternal life cycle of the woods is renewed.

Eva Jenis as Pointed-Ears, the vixen, is irrepressibly cute, youthful, and innocent. Caught by the forester and brought up as a pet for his son, she eventually escapes from her captor and joins the forest creatures, delighting in her newfound freedom. In the woods she falls in love with Goldlocks, a handsome fox, sung by Hana Minutillo. She narrates to him a glorified version of her story. "You will see novels-even operas-written about you," he, in turn, croons prophetically. The couple's flirtation is one of the high points of this opera-the two sopranos dazzle us with the quick, furtive little movements of foxes, rendering them irresistibly attractive.

This light, whimsical opera is a riotous orgy of the senses and a magical celebration of the wonders of nature.

-Dalia Geffen


HECTOR BERLIOZ: The Damnation of Faust, dramatic legend in four acts (2000)

This aggressively modern production of the Berlioz stage work has been captured on a DVD which won a couple of international awards for best classical music video of the year. So I thought I would view and review it though I don't normally feel equipped to pass judgement on vocal music or opera. It took a number of sittings to get through the DVD, I must admit. Usually this work is performed in concert dress without sets. For this Salzburg extravaganza however a huge set with lots of arches serves as background to a giant four-story-high glass cylinder whose walls can be clear, translucent or opaque and also have images projected on them.

The column becomes variously a crowded city, a prison, a lovers' trysting place, a smelter in which souls are purified and an express route to hell. Faust himself and all of the huge chorus are dressed in sort of gray futuristic-looking space suits, but the strangest part of the costume is what looks like a large milk can with a battery-operated light where the top lid would be. These are carried on the backs of everyone in the cast except Mephistopheles and Marguerite. In the convoluted re-telling of the Faust legend found in the DVD booklet, the milk cans contain "the psychic substance" of each individual. Mephistopheles gets to strut around in a dashing black PVC outfit. An equally strange bit of staging is in Part Three of the work, when Faust and Marguerite first meet in person and sing of their attraction for one another. They do this while pushing and pulling around the stage huge grey cases on casters that look like Iron Maidens. Evidently the cases are very heavy, because they are joined at this by stage hands dressed in black who help push and pull, and who they entirely ignore. Oh yes, and at the beginning and end of the work there is supposed to be an eclipse of the sun. The projections onto the cylinder didn't convey that to me, but there is an additional cue provided to those of us who are a bit slow on the uptake: the entire chorus suddenly dons cardboard 3D glasses! All this sci-fi spectacle is the work of an imaginative team from Catalan called Fura des Baus. They did create a furor, have to admit. A British reviewer observed "The faculty of reason has to be checked in at the door with your coat."

The soloists are uniformly excellent, especially Willard White as a black Mephistopheles - his magnificent voice and demeanor plus Berlioz' great music overcome the silly plastic costume. Kasarova is a fine soprano but could constrain her stylized histrionics a bit. Groves' costume really seems to work against his role, making him at times seem not at all a Faust but one of the downtrodden workers from Fritz Lang's film Metropolis who somehow wandered into this far-from-silent stage production. As with all the ArtHaus DVDs I have viewed, both image and sound quality are the best I have seen on any music videos, and the distinctive packaging deserves kudos. In spite of the fact I couldn't get it open and cracked the cover of the box in doing so. As expected, the two-channel PCM stereo is slightly higher resolution than the 5.1 surround tracks. I gave the PCM tracks a bit of L - R surround using the "Hall" setting on my receiver and the audience applause put me front row center - a good test for surround.

- John Sunier


Ken Russell's Mahler

I'd been hearing for years about Ken Russell's various pseudo-bios of famous musicians and a couple of years ago got to see his series on Wagner with Richard Burton in the starring role. Russell is known for his wild and wooly extravagances, and in his depiction of the tormented life of Mahler he pulls out plenty more of them than he did in rather circumspect Wagner bio. Various flashbacks to his childhood and disturbing dreams - mostly about his death - give ample opportunity for such Russell devices as Mahler alive in his coffin being carried in his funeral procession, and dressed as an orthodox Jew smashing a metal Star of David with a giant hammer - dramatizing the composer's conversion to Christianity in order to land an important conducting job. His turbulent marriage, affairs with various opera singers, and general high-level angst are portrayed with lavish costumes and scenery and a complete disregard for historical continuity (Cosima Wagner as a Nazi queen, for example). The film opens with Mahler's familiar little composing cottage on the pier of the lake in Austria, but suddenly it explodes in flames. Welcome to Ken Russell's musical world, where exaggeration, shock and off-the wall scenes poke biographical facts in the eye, but the end result in this case is a quite accurate feeling of what Mahler's life was really like for him.

- John Sunier


MOZART: Piano Concertos Nos. 13 & 20

Another of the many Naxos Musical Journeys DVDs, this one presents a convincingly mixed 5.1 DTS version of the original Naxos stereo master for the soundtrack. Jeno Jando is the pianist with the Concentus Hungaricus conducted by Andras Ligeti (wonder if that's any relation to the composer?) As with the others as well as the previous Visual Music series on laserdisc, one never sees the performers - only the lovely European scenery shot with the highest quality digital cameras and often approaching HDTV in image quality. Although these are all shot for normal ratio screen size I find they expand very successfully to what Pioneer calls "Natural Wide" (with cropping vertically and slight stretching horizontally at the extreme sides) to fill the entire 16:9 screen. This time the views are appropriately of Mozart's Salzburg: the Mozart family house, the Mozart Museum with his own instruments displayed, the lush Mirabell Palace Gardens, the Hohensalzburg Fortress high over the city, Lake Weissensee and the lovely surrounding mountains. We enjoy some of the same buildings and countryside that Mozart enjoyed, while bathing in two of his enchanting piano concerti - what a wonderful match of image and music!

- John Sunier


The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

The 25th Anniversary double-DVD package of this midnight show cult hit is packed with a dizzying variety of features. Of course fans of the musical may scoff at the idea of sitting down solo in your home theater to watch this movie which is synonymous with getting completely involved in the audience participation with what's on the screen. The Theatrical Experience feature on the discs tries to compensate for this by showing you what some audience members - all in appropriate costumes of course - do during many of the numbers. A pair of very red lips appears in the corner of the screen and you press the Menu button on your remote to view the audience participation. Unfortunately, I couldn't get this feature to work. So I didn't get to see audience members, for example, all throw rolls of Scott toilet tissue high in the air when Dr. Scott enters the laboratory and Brad cries out "Great Scott!"

There is more of this sort of stuff in the documentaries. In one Tim Curry speaks to a convention of fans and says that he is the only person there not dressed as himself in Rocky Horror. The costumes and sets of this sci-fi/B movies/rock/horror gender-bender are naturally over the top, as are the sets. The castle venue of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) is a set left over from the Christopher Lee British horror films. The dance numbers in the movie are great fun, though I found the best tune to be the opening "Late Night Science-Fiction Double Feature," whose only visual is a pair of giant singing red lips. Its lyrics mention just about every classic sci-fi movie of the 50s and 60s in which I immersed myself. The visual and audio transfers are close to perfect; I'd expected fairly poor quality considering the low budget, and seeing it only with lights on in the theater plus lots of noise and confusion - but was surprised by the high technical quality.

- John Sunier


The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996)

As romantic comedies goes, this was one of the best of l996. It's warm-hearted and charming, without any dogs being thrown out of windows, people throwing up on one another, or endless scatological humor as seen in most of this year's so-called comedies. Garofalo plays a veterinarian with her own call-in radio show. Thurman plays a dense but likeable bimbo who Garofalo enlists to sub for her since Garofalo suffers from serious loss of confidence around men. Chaplin is the confused suitor and is both cute and believable in the role. Lots of cute stuff with dogs and cats. Lots of cute stuff with people. Lots of nice Santa Monica scenes. Good video transfer but almost no use of the 5.1 surround.

- John Sunier


Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)

Continuing the cat theme here, the Truth about Cat-Women of the Moon and movie Dogs is that it's probably second only to Plan Nine From Outer Space as the worst Hollywood movie ever made. Here's just a few pieces of evidence in defense of that allegation: The chairs for the crew inside the space ship to Mars (that accidentally ends up on the Moon) are standard office chairs with casters on them!; the giant spider puppet that threatens the crew on the Moon looks just like that - a hairy puppet; the "Hollywood Cover Girls" play the Cat-Women (their ritual midnight interpretive dance beggars description); when they are being wined and dined with exotic Moon foods by the Cat-Women, the one female Earthling complains "I wish I had a Coke;" the one-week shoot of the tight-budget movie was scheduled to run from Monday morning to Friday at 5 PM - so when 5 PM arrived all shooting ceased, even though there were still five pages of script to go! Understandably the movie seems to end rather suddenly. It's only 64 minutes long - in fact some very important plot elements are dismissed by an off-camera voice.

This was a 3D film originally - I wish that version had been transferred to DVD together with the glasses. I know that didn't work well with 3D movies on VHS tape, but with the much higher resolution of DVD I'm sure it would be fine. Perhaps they felt some viewers would get a blinding headache from watching an hour of anaglyph stereo with the red and blue glasses. (And they're right.) By the way, the not-bad music track was one of the first film scores by Elmer Bernstein, and the beautiful and astronomically-correct backgrounds were painted by renowned artist Chesley Bonestell - who also did the backgrounds for George Pal's classic Destination Moon. The notes about the film inside the case are a kick; they even credit the fellow responsible for constructing the fuzzy spider puppet with the eyes that never move...

- John Sunier


The Lifestyle - Swinging in America (1999)

Claiming to be the first in-depth documentary on the subculture of sexual swingers in America, this is actually a very straight-forward, non-judgmental treatment of what goes on behind some closed doors. The film makers interviewed several couples and one man who wife had recently died, and then returned to talk to some of them a year later. The occasion was an annual swingers' convention. They also visited homes during "recreational sex" parties, with everyone very open, forthright and informal, to put it mildly. Don't expect to see beautiful bodies, but bodies there are in abundance, pardon the expression.

The stories of some of the couples discovering this unexpected way of relating to one another and to others are fascinating, especially coming from the senior citizen couples. The elderly man whose wife died and who continues to throw sex parties at his home has an especially touching story - again pardon the expression. There is also one young couple who upon being interviewed the second year have decided the "scene" is not for them. Without poking fun at the swingers, the documentary makers come up with some hilarious images and dialog. I wouldn't say as Cue Magazine did, that The Lifestyle is "mindblowing," but it is certainly thought provoking and would probably get a hot discussion going among any group of friends following viewing this uncensored-yet-not-X-Rated DVD.

- John Sunier


The Best of Zagreb Film: Be Careful What You Wish For;
The Classic Collection

The Zagreb Film Studio in Yugoslavia made over 600 animated shorts over a period of about 40 years. Their filmmakers wrote, designed and directed their own works - giving them a unique quality of boldness and trenchant commentary on various aspects of life. Their design often seemed derived from the American UPA cartoons (Mr. Magoo, Gerald McBoingBoing) but also encompassed a wild variety of artistic approaches that are carefully crafted to have appropriate suitability to the message the filmmaker wants to deliver. They are nearly all wildly entertaining as well, and like most good animated shorts get their meaning across without spoken dialog or subtitles - making them a truly international vehicle of communication to any audience anywhere. Often sound effects or unintelligible vocal sounds convey the message better than any words could. The soundtracks, by the way, are often distorted on peaks; it appears to be a problem of the original films rather than their transfer to DVD.

My real find here was a Zagreb classic I've always wanted to see again, let alone to own - Ersatz. A beach-bound man inflates almost an entire blow-up village, including his love interest. At the end of the day he lets the air out of everything. (OK, that may sound boring, but you have to see it.) Another features an opera-singing pig who wants his voice to be appreciated, but everyone he meets only wants to roast him. Several are Kafkaesque tales, as expected from Eastern Europe: The Wall is a famous animation dealing with abstract totalitarianism; The Fly is about a clash of wills between a man and a giant fly, but with a uncharacteristically happy ending. The artwork for Poe's Masque of the Red Death is gorgeous, and the story is told with probably more shock value than the Vincent Price version. Cat lovers won't like the way Maxicat is drawn in the three episodes out of 24 very short bits with that cartoon character, but they are undeniably funny. Altogether there are 21 varied animations in this delightful collection. It should be in the DVD collection of any animation lover.

- John Sunier


Phish: Bittersweet Motel (2000)

I have to admit that I don't follow modern music as much as I would like. So when I received this title I wondered: "Who is Phish?" Both a friend and my roommate had actually seen the band live and had really good things to say. From the look of it, Phish appears to be just another rock band, but if you leave it at that then you are missing what the band is about. This film follows the band through their last tour, and gives an overview of the multiple dimensions of their music, their beliefs, and their spirit. Some people have apparently compared them to the Grateful Dead, because the band, although largely unknown, manages to draw many loyal fans to their concerts year after year.

The band started out playing for a party and then graduated to small local gigs. Eventually they began to book larger dates and fans (some of whom are interviewed briefly) go from show to show to show in order to see them perform. A lot of the commentary is from Trey Anastasio who seems to be the force that keeps them together and focused. It is fascinating to hear about the creation of the music, and what it means to be a performer. Included are some clips of their live performances, and there is spontaneity to the group that is very appealing. Influences are definitely based in blues, rock, and folk. If you like that type of music and are in the mood for an interesting commentary on the touring scene, then pick up a copy. Highly recommended.

- Brian Bloom 


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