DVD Reviews - September 2001, Pt. 1 of 2

[Click on each DVD to go directly to its review]

Richard Wagner: Die Walküre

Die Walküre, one of the most exciting and passionate operas ever written, is the second installment in Wagner's tetralogy, the Ring cycle. I was enthralled by this profound and monumental work when I watched it on PBS about ten years ago, and I have been a Wagner aficionado and an opera buff ever since. This Metropolitan Opera production remains faithful to Wagner's intentions by presenting a literal interpretation of the drama (rather than a heavily symbolic one) and proffering naturalistic settings. Thus Hunding's abode is a primitive hut and the Valkyries' meeting place is a craggy rock, on which the hapless Brünnhilde, in an inversion of Sleeping Beauty, will eventually succumb to a deep sleep.

Except for Christa Ludwig (who sings Fricka), the principal artists valiantly portray gods and demigods in all their heroic but fallible splendor, beginning with Jessye Norman, who as Sieglinde offers a weary and wounded Siegmund (Gary Lakes) a drink of water and they gaze into each other's eyes with unexpected wonder and longing. Subsequently, when Siegmund is about to depart, Sieglinde begs Siegmund to stay. Here Norman's plea is velvety and strong. And throughout the opera, her vividly expressive face, tremendous acting ability, and precise diction combine beautifully to yield a Sieglinde who is tender, womanly, and appealing, without forgoing any of her dramatic appeal. Lakes is earnest and immersed in his role (especially while recounting his adventures), and his powerful physique bespeaks Siegmund's great heroism, but his unrelievedly serious expression, devoid of even a hint of lightness, makes him appear stiff and remote. And on occasion he seems to tire. Kurt Moll's Hunding is filled with menace, as befits Sieglinde's boorish husband. His malevolent glare directed at Siegmund and lustful ogling of Sieglinde are magnificent. Listen to his intimidating "wohl" when he tells Siegmund "Hütte dich wohl" (Guard yourself well).

Act 2 opens with Wotan's battle instructions to Brünnhilde, his favored Valkyrie daughter. James Morris is in his prime here, before a certain nonchalance and cynicism had crept into his performance. His secure, authoritative singing and godly appearance are unrivaled in today's meager pantheon of Wagnerian singers. He sings with a beautifully rolling vibrato, like an indefatigable engine. Christa Ludwig (Fricka), however, is no match for him. Regrettably, this highly accomplished mezzo-soprano sounds old and shrill. She is utterly lacking in spontaneity, as though on automatic pilot.

Hildegard Behrens's operatic experience makes up for her light voice and appearance. She looks too frail to be a warrior maiden, but her youthful movements expertly convey the Valkyrie's girlish innocence. And in Act 3 her maidenly distress is convincing. When the irate Wotan is finally mollified, he sings the most rapturous and evocative music in all of Wagner's prodigious oeuvre ("Leb wohl" [Stay well]). It was this particular excerpt that persuaded Morris finally to sing Wagner in San Francisco. And here his fatherly solicitousness is heartbreaking in its tenderness. As he kisses Brünnhilde to remove her godliness and put her to sleep, he gently lowers her to the rock and gazes on her longingly. Morris's spellbinding farewell transports us to a magical realm, culminating in an appeal to Loge, the god of fire, to surround Brünnhilde's rock with a protective magical fire (the fire music). I remained glued to the screen long after the bewitching notes faded into silence.

The sound in this production is great and Levine's conducting is energetic. Some viewers might prefer Boulez's Walküre (soon to be released on DVD) for its vitality and sexiness, but for a straightforward and mature interpretation this performance is the one to choose.

-Dalia Geffen

MOZART: Cosi Fan Tutti

Mozart's penultimate opera has music whose greatness has an inverse relationship to its thin plot about constancy, trickery, cynicism, despair, all topped with a dollop of social mores satire. Allegedly based on a contemporary incident, the plot flows quickly from one machination to the next, with Mozart's music greasing the gears so effortlessly its four-plus hours slip by faster than a sigh of regret. In this latest filmed stage version, all the elements are present for a rousing evening's entertainment.

Harnoncourt conducts the opera with respect and meticulousness. His handling of the busy Act I finale is stellar and his singers carry most of the scenes off with verve bordering on inspiration. Stage director Jürgen Flimm demonstrates his impish sense of humor, particularly in the scenes in which the devious maid Despina dresses up like a doctor and a lawyer. Bartoli is generally good in her role as Fiordiligi, except that she and Harnoncourt botch the great rondo 'Per pieta, ben, mio, perdona' with a deadly pace, stripping it of the mockery that Mozart injected as undercurrent. And while Agnes Baltsa portrays a splendidly silly Despina, I kept thinking this should have been Bartoli's role-she has such has a gift for comedy. Alas, Arthaus Musik DVD production fails in two ways. There is no scene index! You'll have a hard time keying up 'Secondate aurette amiche' to delight your visitors. And why did the Behind the Scenes interviews omit the women?

--Peter Bates

Live Concert from the Semper Opera Dresden, 1998

Fans of Sinopoli will surely appreciate this superb video memorial to the conductor whose life was cut short recently. It's good to see ArtHaus formatting for the 16:9 screen, though this one is still only two-channel audio rather than surround. With a non-gimmicky matrix decoder in your processor/receiver you can still probably create as good a concert hall impression using the PCM audio feed as provided by most 5.1 classical audio tracks (many of which are artificially created anyway).

The Vivaldi concerto was dedicated by the composer to this same Saxon State Dresden Orchestra, which has a 450-year history. All four works were originally given their world premieres by this orchestra. The two overtures are sparkling and rich-textured, but the centerpiece here is of course the very programmatic Alpine Symphony. I found it more entertaining to follow along the music with Strauss' various description of points on his mountain hike, than when listening to a solely audio recording of the symphony. As with all of the ArtHaus DVDs, production values are topnotch, with appropriate images of the various players in the orchestra at appropriate times, and highest resolution in both the onscreen images and the sound.

- John Sunier

The Best of Tina Turner / Celebrate

Bit of a change of pace in music videos here. There's just nobody like Tina Turner in entertainment - her appeal cuts across all boundaries - she's the ultimate crossover star in music! (Personally I don't even care for soul music especially.) This is her unbelievable 60th birthday party onstage, and if anything she's turned up the heat rather than cooling it down. Bryan Adams is her guest for a couple duets, her three "Tinaettes" are terrific dancers and backup singers, and the band is spectacular. Intercut with her birthday concert are video clip dedications from Paul McCartney, Maria Carey, Sting, Will Smith, Oprah, Annie Lennox and others. As part of her new performances of such giant hits as River Deep Mountain High, clips of her early performances of the same tunes are included, as well as comments by people involved - such as Phil Spector in this case. Finally, there are also interviews with Tina herself in which she is clearly being herself 100% - one of her great attractions. Even at the peaks of her most outrageous onstage delivery one never gets the impression of things being forced or overdone in the name of show-off show biz (as with some other performers such as Liza Minelli). Yea Tina!

- John Sunier

Fellini's Roma (1972)

Roma is another of Fellini's filmic autobiographies, but this one a bit more specific and centered around his beloved Eternal City, Rome. He includes impressions of his days as a schoolboy in the countryside, some of the history and lore of the great city, and a feeling of what it was like during that turbulent period just prior to World War II. But Fellini wouldn't be Fellini without fantastic, exaggerated images and situations, and Roma has plenty of those. The Papal fashion show is just one example of his visual and situational satire. One scene of a tumultuous outdoor evening dining experience - with the streetcar tracks running right at diners' elbows - will probably forever be in my mind when I eat out Italian. The cardinals, workers, teachers, wild youth, film makers, whores, fashion models, are all here in his outlandish, daring, and yet loving pageant of people and places. One of the Italian master's lesser films, but nevertheless a classic - especially in this excellent restoration. The lush color cinematography is as glorious as in his Juliet of the Spirits, and there is a greater variety of thrilling images.

- John Sunier

The Emperor's New Groove (2000)

Subtitled "The Ultimate Groove," this is a double-disc collector's edition. This short traditional animation feature was one of Disney's recent hits. The idea was to employ the old-fashioned cel animation to create a look like the sort of classical animation many of us grew up with. New Groove concentrates more on the comedy than some of the other recent Disney animation. The voices are great, especially John Goodman as the peasant who shows the Emperor how to be considerate of other people. Plus the onscreen character really looks and acts like Goodman. The often Latin flavored soundtrack music is a kick too, as well as the clever dance steps of the Emperor when he's in his human form rather than the llama form an evil witch saddles him with. The producers speak about their excitement with presenting their work on DVD and its ability to provide extras such as they have prepared for this release. They prepared so much it required a second DVD to hold it all, even though the film itself is only 77 minutes. The DVD-ROM portion was to my mind not worth bothering with, as I've also found most of those included with video DVDs. But there's so much other material, who cares? The Animation Groove tour would be of utmost interest to any budding young film animators.

- John Sunier

Neurotica - Middle-Age Spread and Other Life Crises

Staying in the animation groove...What a great organizational idea to assemble 11 short animations from long-time leader in creative animation, The National Film Board! Two of the Canadian studios biggest hits are included: Special Delivery and Bob's Birthday. The latter presents the same wonderful characters that are seen in the current cable TV animation series, Bob & Margaret. Four others were Oscar nominees: The Big Snit is a classic about a bickering couple cheating at Scrabble while a nuclear war rages outside. George and Rosemary is a touching comedy showing that romance is not just for the young, and Strings also has a romantic theme at heart of its story concerning a string quartet, a man, a woman, and a leaky faucet. Nearly all of the 11 are winners as far as I'm concerned, but then I've been a NFB fan ever since they showed us the scratch-directly-on-film animations of Norman McLaren in the second grade. Even inspired me to dabble in animation at one point. There's not any real use of the 5.1 surround, but it doesn't matter in this case. I wish theaters would go back to showing cartoons along with features again, and use these! (Perhaps our neighbors to the north do that.)

- John Sunier

M:I-2 (2000)

Ethan Hunt, the world's greatest spy, returns for a rip-roaring John Woo action film in Mission Impossible 2. Not being a great Cruise fan I had skipped the original MI, but Woo's reputation for creative violent action somehow perked my interest, and I wasn't disappointed. This is one of those films where the stunts and special effects seem more important than the actors or the story line. The latter is the usual one about terrorists threatening to unleash unspeakable horrors on the earth and of course it's all up to Ethan to stop them at all costs. One review said to put your mind on Cruise control and fasten your seat belt; that says it. Amazing locations, photography and stunts, and plenty of extras to analyze and explain how many of those stunts were done. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to open either the MTV parody or the DVD-ROM materials, even once I found them after much searching. Perhaps the assignments blew themselves up before I got there.

- John Sunier

Almost Famous (2000)

Director Cameron Crowe started out as a 15-year-old reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, and this is his own touching and entertaining story. His journey into the wild world of rock n' roll is a coming-of-age movie with a difference, as well plenty of humorous situations. McDormand plays his protective mother (protective with good reason!), who gets more than concerned when her young sapling hits the road with a rock group to write about them from the inside out. His adventures seem honest and without guile; you are rooting for the kid from the get-go. Crudup is completely believable in his role and Kate Hudson is a tasty little pixie. The soundtrack includes music of The Who and Elton John.

- John Sunier

Things You Can Tell Just By Looking At Her (2000)

Rating: ****

Must say I skipped this one in the theaters because it sounded like a Gen X movie version of "Friends," but was I wrong! Turns out to be a very understated and tender exploration of the lives of six woman in LA who are at various emotional crossroads. Their stories are both separate and in some subtle ways also skillfully interwoven. Close is a doctor who feels spiritually bereft, Flockhart is a fortune-teller whose lover is dying, Hunter is bank manager dealing with unexpected motherhood, and Brenneman is a lonely young detective whose blind sister has a boyfriend. Nothing is really wrapped up and each woman is left working out the choices she has; viewers are left to tell themselves the rest of the stories. The multiple female characters and their interaction reminded me of some Altman's films, but this is more of a chamber music film vs. Altman's grand oratorios. It could also be viewed as Lifetime channel fodder upgraded to Academy Award level or nearly so.

- John Sunier

Another Woman (1988)

Another chamber film, this very effective adult drama (set in NYC of course) concerns Rowlands as a professor of philosophy discovering things about herself not before understood. A chance meeting with the troubled young Mia Farrow leads to a full realization of her own loveless marriage and empty life. Learning of her husband's infidelity spurs her to make some changes in her life. An interesting device in the plot is provided by a heating grill in the apartment Rowlands rents to work on a book she is writing. It leads to a psychiatrist's office where she overhears the conversations of Farrow, who she later meets. This was Allen's 17th film and I feel it's better than his recent ones.

- John Sunier

M. Hulot's Holiday (l953)

Some group of critics recently chose the funniest film comedy of all time and it was Some Like It Hot. I can't disagree with that, but after an evening spent with Hulot and Tati and think this one should be the strongest second place in that list! First, it's a pleasure to see such a glorious and rich black and white print, looking as if it was shot yesterday. All of Criterion's reissues are up to this top quality of image.

Next, the English translations in the subtitles have been improved and they are easy to read. They don't appear frequently because this is definitely a visual physical comedy film. It could almost have been silent except for the hilarious and very precise emphasis Tati places on his sound effects - the odd sound the dining room door makes when it swings back and forth, for example. Another pleasure of this package is seeing again the first Tati film, in which he plays a prone-to-mishap postman on bicycle. It dates from l936 and is not that different from the M. Hulot character that later bumped and stumbled through several feature films starting with this one.

The setting is a French seaside resort where just standing there he somehow causes if not complete chaos at least some sort of occurrence to smile at. The gags involve boats, dogs, kids, playing tennis and riding horses, and in the grand finale, fireworks. Audiophiles will love the scene where the vacationers are quietly entertaining themselves indoors and Hulot suddenly jars all concerned by spinning a big band 78 with the volume up all the way. One of the running visual and aural jokes is Hulot's decrepit car which is always breaking down in various hilarious ways. His interest in the girl next door to the resort and her interest in him is shown in a subtle way. He strives to put his best foot forward - with her and others - at all times but inevitably he stumbles. My favorite scenes are the varnishing of the kayak and the inner tube from his rattletrap car being mistaken for a funeral wreath. The catchy small-group jazz theme heard throughout the film is now stuck in my brain and I'll have to learn to play it on the piano to get rid of it. Next issue I'll do Tati's sequel to this classic: Mon Oncle.

- John Sunier


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