DVD Video Reviews Part 1 - November 2001

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VERDI: Rigoletto, complete opera

Conducted By: Riccardo Chailly

The release of a DVD of an opera filmed on location is always an event. They nearly always have excellent production values and rarely contain intrusive ticks like audience applause and stage noise. This recording of the 1983 Unitel German production of Rigoletto is both wondrous and consistently excellent. So what if the singing is post-dubbed? The effect is still entrancing.

Rigoletto was controversial in its day because its theme, the attempted murder of a duke by a subject, was just too dark. This recording captures the rage of Rigoletto, not just against the duke but the whole court who used and mocked him at the same time. Ingvar Wixell manages to elicit sympathy and revulsion at the same time. And it is a revulsion at his collaboration with court intrigue, not his appearance. His "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata" has undeniable poignancy: it arcs from rage to pleading with heart stopping drama. Ponnelle's direction is first rate. Rigoletto's first scene with the cutthroat Sparafucile, while not particularly musical, creeps up on you with dark and sinister tones. Gilda's rendition of the famous "Cara nome," itself a small masterpiece, features a compelling blend of long shots and close-ups. As the great leering duke who "loathes fidelity like the plague" (only to chide women for their inconstancy in the great aria "La Donna e mobile"), Pavarotti delivers one of the great roles of his career.

Some viewers may not respond as warmly as I did over his creative effects, such as when the courtiers are singing and the camera follows the staccato tutti chords with quick face shots. Ponnelle opens the first act overture with a extra-diagetic scene of Rigoletto encountering the corpse of his daughter, as if in a dream. The brief trio between Sparafusile, Maddalena, and Gilda, shot beneath flashing lightning, veers close to melodrama's precipice. Patience gentle viewers! These may be daring dramatic effects, but this is grand opera! They all should be permitted, just as long as we don't expect them all to work.

-- Peter Bates


"I am completely at a loss to explain why I made it," Brendel comments as he revisits his childhood and performing history in the 70 minute documentary. His parents were not musicians, but he operated the record player in his father's hotel in the 1930's. He visits Graz, and comments on his first recital there at age 17. Extensive recording rehearsal excerpts of Beethoven's Piano Concertos 2 and 3 with Sir Simon Rattle illuminate the rapport between the two artists. A tour of Brendel's London home brings out his love of African art and his talent as a poet is amply demonstrated. Conversations about creativity in art ("humor is the sublime in reverse") and character in art ("masterpieces combine things you thought were uncombinable") are deftly interspersed with a wide variety of performance excerpts. Although Brendel is known for being a private artist, here he is portrayed as reserved but genuinely warm, intelligent, passionate and not without humor. This documentary and the generous 29 minute rehearsal excerpts help to explain his prominence as one of today's foremost pianists.

- Robert Moon

Supernatural Live - Santana (2000)

This DVD features the live versions of the much-celebrated tunes from the studio album Supernatural by Carlos Santana. There are a few snippets in between songs, but otherwise the concert is pretty much continuous. Song list is as follows:

(Da Le) Yaleo
Love Of My Life
Put Your Lights On
Africa Bamba
Do You Like The Way
Day Of Celebration
Victory Is Won
Maria Maria
Smooth/ Dame Tu Amor
Gypsy Queen/ Oye Como Va
Make Somebody Happy/ Right On Be Free.

Artists on this recording are: Santana Band, Dave Matthews, Carter Beauford, Sarah McLachlan, Everlast, Lauryn Hill, Cee-Lo, Product G&B, Chester Thompson, Wayne Shorter, and Rob Thomas.

There is good reason why this album won as many Grammies as it did. Here are all those songs packed in with the fun of a live performance in Pasadena, California. The performances are tight, smooth, and absolute ear candy. Wayne Shorter's performance was especially moving for me. There are a lot of extras on the disc and I can't imagine anyone being disappointed. This concert is shot on video and looks it. Sound was very good and there is no crazy placement of instruments swirling around your head-everything is believable. The DTS track seemed to have more depth, with slightly smaller images, but definitely had more focus. As one of the producer's in the featurette says, "He [Santana] is as fresh today as he was in '68." Don't wait-experience the supernatural!

- Brian Bloom

Music In High Places- Collective Soul (2001)

Music in High Places is a new concept attempting to juxtapose a well-known musical artist in an exotic locale in various parts of the world. Some of the groups participating are Boyz II Men in Korea, Brian McKnight in Brazil, Sugar Ray in Australia, and Alanis Morissette at the Navajo Nation. This disc features Collective Soul playing in Morocco. There is little historical information included. Mostly, the video includes visits to the marketplace and ancient ruins, a campfire, and a few discourses from the band members about how great it is to be in Morocco. As a fairly big Collective Soul fan I was expecting a lot, but the acoustic performance did not impress as much as other bands I've heard. On one particular tune there was a special vibe with the surrounding onlookers that made it very fun and interesting, but most of the other pieces only used the ruins and sites as backdrops and came off like a flashy music videos.

This entire series seems like a big production concept with the goal of attracting viewers who may not have watched otherwise. Some of the press releases describe the concept as "National Geographic for the VH1 and MTV generation." In other words, something with very little substance that will appeal to the clicker generation who can't tolerate anything educational for more than 30 seconds-I'm offended! I was sent a packet with tons of articles and brief news clips about the new series. Apparently, someone has done some pretty good marketing or made some pretty big financial outlays to warrant this kind of attention. There was a bit about the impetus behind the original idea that sounded quite spiritual, so I can only guess that someone higher up managed to water it down and make it much less than it could be. Maybe with a few more titles I will change my opinion, but at this point I wouldn't expect too much.

The sound and the picture were fine except that the picture was matted to widescreen but not anamorphic, so it ended up in the center of the screen with the progressive scan Rotel DVD player I happened to be using. The truth is there are tons of extras, including a few scenes that help provide more background information that was missing from the main presentation. If you are willing to sit through some extraneous junk then you might find something worthwhile. After all, this was a music DVD and the rating reflects that. The time limits the amount of information, and I guess that is where the sacrifice is made. A two-hour presentation would have been fully acceptable and much more fulfilling. Anyway, if you can catch this on DirecTV then you can decide if it is worth a purchase.

- Brian Bloom

Alice's Restaurant (1969)

Long hair, hippies, folk music, the draft, and a Volkswagen van figure prominently in this film. Our young protagonist, Arlo Guthrie, playing himself, is a drifter at best. Entrance into the music department of a top school does not suit young Arlo as he is soon kicked out. Back on the road again and he heads out to a few clubs to play a gig or two, but discovers that not everyone appreciates his music. Unable to really feel at home he goes to meet up with a few old friends who have just acquired a church that they intend to fix up and live in. Another good friend of theirs has just come out of detox, and joins the group to stay and try to begin a new life. He struggles with drugs and his addiction throughout the film. One of the members of the group, Alice, is intent on opening up a restaurant in the town and thus, the title. Arlo makes a couple of trips to see his dying father, Woody Guthrie, who is suffering from Huntington's Corea. The gang gets all set for a big feast in celebration of Thanksgiving, and what a celebration it is: music, dancing, drugs, and lots of fun. A little mischief leads to an arrest and some community service for Arlo. There is a chance that Arlo is going to be drafted, but thenyou know how the story ends, or do you?

This movie is part of the Avant-Garde Cinema collection from MGM. It plays like an older 60s/ 70s self-discovery film. The movie is very biographical and is heavily story and situational based. The acting is very raw, but the movie definitely has its moments. The music is quite enjoyable if you like that type of folk rock. There is not much to the plot aside from some little vignette style occurrences with moral commentary throughout. Arlo is a sort of common hero doing the best he can with his talent, modesty, and genuine values. The sound is mono and there is nothing fantastic about it, but it does not detract. The picture has some grain with an older 70s sort of look to it with dulling of colors. Overall, you get what you pay for.

- Brian Bloom

The Prince of Egypt (1999)

What better way to pass along Bible stories to children than through animated movies? And what a way to grab an audience, but to tell them a tale they already know, but in a new and different way. The Prince of Egypt describes the beginning of the story of Moses from the Book of Exodus. As the film cautions, it has taken a little historical and artistic license while presenting this movie, but it tries to be "true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith to millions of people worldwide." I won't really bother giving you a summary of the story of Moses, but the movie begins from the point of Moses going up the river to be discovered by the Egyptian queen, and moves forward to the point where he leads his people to the Promised Land. Water into blood, staff into snake, and most of the tale is reproduced here in one form or another.

This film goes along fairly well, and the animation is typical of the other Dreamworks films. The film is colorful and the music is acceptable. There is a good amount of action and drama, but some may find the plot too light in parts and too heavy in others. I suppose this is the nature of The Bible-death and destruction and life and brilliance. Unfortunately, the movie wasn't gripping, and didn't stand out in any particular way. There wasn't much to complain about, but not enough to cheer about either. The sound was excellent in DTS, but there is only a matrix surround mix for Dolby Digital. The picture bordered on excellent, but certain scenes seemed not as sharp as I would have liked. In any case, be cautioned about some of the violence portrayed-it might be too much for young children.

- Brian Bloom

Akira (1988)

Thirty years after WWIII and we find Japan a completely rebuilt metropolis. The action starts with rival gangs battling on the streets. Revolution and disorder is everywhere on a daily basis. Members of the gang encounter a strange child who is under surveillance by the government for unknown reasons. One of the gang members is captured and is experimented on in a laboratory. Exposure to the child may have affected him in curious ways that could ultimately bring about a power like no other-Akira. After escaping the hospital, he is on the run as the military, the politicians, and the kids try to come to terms with the things they discover. The young man, Tetsuo, and the children who have been kept secret by the government all have this power in common. But it is strong in Tetsuo and he may not be able to control this power. Not only that, but it may control him.

This is not your average run of the mill science fiction film. There is much going on and much to figure out. The characters are well drawn, and just because the film is animated is no reason to discount it as a kid's movie. It is violent, philosophical, and geared towards adults (like much Anime is). The artwork and animation is first rate and defined the cutting edge at the time. Even by today's standards it is an amazing work. The transfer is impressive and the sound and picture are very good. The movie is not short, but all the time is needed to develop the story and show off the incredible animation. If you are into science fiction films then you will enjoy this movie. And if you enjoy the art of animation, then this is a must see. If Akira hasn't achieved cult status already, then it probably should.

- Brian Bloom


Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Two men are sitting at a party and one of them comments on how he'd sure like to commit the perfect murder. The other tells a tale of life after that murder. This is not a description of the movie, but a scene at the end. An ophthalmologist is a little more tense than usual, and what could be the reason? None other than his mistress is starting to say emotional things that bring concern to him. A letter addressed to his wife is quite alarming and he realizes he must confront the woman. A confrontation is no help, and he worries that he may have to do something drastic. Could he bring himself to kill? Meanwhile Woody is in a cold relationship with a woman he is just going through the moves with. He's a documentary filmmaker but doesn't have much luck making popular films. His wife's brother is a successful producer, but Woody can't stand the guy. As luck would have it, he gets a job making the biography of his brother in law. Here is where he meets the woman of his dreams. She is a bit standoffish, but charming and intelligent, and highly desirable. There is a rabbi going blind, a philosophy professor with a lot on his mind, and a cast of wonderfully interesting characters. The people are all a little interrelated and that makes the movie more cohesive than usual.

Since Woody isn't the main character this film plays a little differently than his older pictures. However, the reality of the characters is perhaps a bit more succinct and believable than in some of the other films. Yet, at the same time, there are many of the Woody-esque breakdowns of humor that made me laugh out loud. Acting is very good, and there is definitely a cast of well-known people. Alan Alda is very funny with a resemblance to his MASH character in the intensity of his performance. The picture quality varied and was definitely better in some scenes than others; especially close ups, while others appeared softer. Sound left nothing to complain about. This film is billed as a "Contemporary Classic," and it just might be.

- Brian Bloom

Continue on to Part 2 of DVD Reviews


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