DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

DVD-Video Reviews, Part 1 of 2


Published on June 1, 2004


Part 1 of 2 [Pt. 2]

***Seven Music Videos***

WAGNER: Tristan und Isold (complete opera)

Staatsorchester Stuttgart/Lothar Zagrosek.
Soloists: Ben Hepner, Jane Eaglen, Rene Pape, Hans-Joachim Ketlesen, and Katerina Dalayman.
Set and Costume Design: Jurgen Rose.
Studio: DGG B0001745-09
Video: 4:3 full frame
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
Length: 238 minutes
Rating: *****

Don’t listen to this opera if you are not in the mood for longing, unrequited passion, and fitful surges of desire. You won’t make it through. But if you can suspend yearning for four hours (or two two-hour segments as I did), you’re in for an astonishing performance. This splendid DVD is the best I have seen of Tristan und Isolde. Everything is near perfect: the minimalist stage setting, the spooky lighting, the wondrous orchestral preludes, and of course the two stars Ben Hepner and Jane Eaglen. Do not expect rousing choruses or stirring calls to action. This opera is about one thing only: the impossibility of love in a loveless world.

Every scene, every sequence, every note contributes to this central theme, and nowhere else does Wagner express it so eloquently and consistently. Rarely does he lead us to resolution but rather toward yet another unresolved figure. Take Act III for example. Most of it revolves around the wounded Tristan seeking Isolde’s returning ship. In one particularly discordance sequence, when he thinks he sees the ship, the music intensifies and strives toward tonic resolution then suddenly … it drops in timbre and dynamic. It wasn’t the ship at all. Only an illusion. Throughout almost four hours, Wagner reaches into his bottomless bag of devices and teases us toward resolution, only to lead us into another emotional maelstrom. Designers Rose and Keller construct the sumptuous Act II, perhaps Wagner’s greatest single act, in near darkness. The lovers approach fulfillment but never reach it, thwarted by the treachery of circumstance. You may not leave this opera humming its tunes, but you will never forget those final chords of resolution, Wagner’s liebestod to imperfect love.

–Peter Bates

LEOS JANACEK: The Cunning Little Vixen (1996)

Animated film by Geoff Dunbar of the opera by Janacek
Soloists/BBC Singers/New London Children’s Choir/Deutsches Sym. Orch. of Berlin/Kent Nagano
Studio: BBC/Opus Arte (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: Enhanced for 16:9 widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Stereo
Subtitles: Sung in English, titles in French, German, Spanish
Extras: “Animating The Cunning Little Vixen,” Complete storyboard multi-angled with the actual film, Use angle bottom to follow the stage of the animation
Length: 75 minutes
Rating: ****

Now this is a different way to present opera to the masses. The film was made for British television.There have been short animations of famous scenes from various operas, as well as Bugs Bunny cartoons parodying Carmen and other operas, but this is a straightforward (though edited down to 75 minutes) presentation of the actual music of an opera by Janacek. There was a popular European cartoon strip in the newspapers of the 1920s about the adventures of a feisty little female fox: Vixen Sharpears. Janacek read and loved it and was inspired to create his opera based on the cartoon character.

The Cunning Little Vixen was the first opera Kent Nagano ever conducted, and when he was conducting it again in l977 he realized its story of the cycle of life to death, to life again, and its treatments of love, humor and tragedy, was universal in nature and perfect for reaching wider audiences as an animated film on TV. By the way, not all the characters are animals: there are also the forester and his wife and a local ne’er-do-well. Animator/Director Geoff Dunbar talks in the accompanying documentary about his inspirations for the various characters, and shows the preliminary drawings as well as every step in the cycle from original idea to final moving images on the screen. He has created a magical and creative world that draws the viewer in and you soon forget you are listening to an opera. The images are so much less gimmicky than typical Disney animation and of course the music is on a much higher level. However, when the Vixen is shot I remembered how upset I was as a child when Bambi’s mother was killed. There is no libretto but the voices are quite easy to understand, and when not the images fill in the story details. This is superb animation that children should see, on the same level as Spirited Away and Finding Nemo. And it could even start them on an appreciation of opera which I was not privy to.

- John Sunier

John Adams – A Portrait & A Concert of American Music

Works in Concert: JOHN ADAMS: Gnarly Buttons (Clarinet Concerto); Chamber Symphony; STEVE REICH: Eight Lines; CONLON NANCARROW: Studies for Player Piano Nos. 1 & 7 – Ensemble Intercontemporain/Jonathan Nott, Andre Tourttet, clarinet
Documentary by David Jeffock; Narrator: Amita Dhiri
Studio: Art Haus Musik (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 16:9 enhanced for widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital stereo (Portrait); Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, PCM linear stereo (Concert)
Subtitles (Portrait): French, Spanish, German, Japanese
Length: Portrait – 52 min.; Concert – 82 min.
Rating: ***

An interesting pairing of a PBS-style bio-documentary on the most performed contemporary American composer today plus a bonus video concert of two of his works and three from other composers. The documentary is very worthwhile viewing – covering the composer’s childhood, studies at Harvard, and influences on his music. Considerable time is spent on three of his stage works: El Nino, Nixon in China, and The Death of Klinghofer (the last of which a feature film version has just been made). Adams’ discussions plus the excerpts of music selected for the documentary make the uninitiated believe they should explore this exciting composer’s work more closely.

However, the concert would then be a big letdown because Reich’s Eight Lines is stuck-record-type super-minimalism and Adams’ Chamber Symphony represents an unusual-for-him homage to the Second Viennese School of serial technique. The two Nancarrow Studies are not minimalist at all, and if you have heard any that composer’s amazing original Studies for one or two player pianos you would wonder why someone went to all the trouble of transcribing them for chamber orchestra. They become a total bore in that form. Only the Adams clarinet concerto in this concert held some interest for my ears. Then there was the frustration of attempting to dial up the improved-fidelity DTS surround tracks for the concert. It took dozens of tries to switch out of the Dolby Digital option, and since I had to watch it in sections every time I had to stop and restart the entire process had to be repeated again. There was no chapter heading for the major Chamber Symphony – you have to hold down the fast forward endlessly to get to it. The front cover promotes the 12-page booklet which is enclosed, but only 1 page of it is in English…

- John Sunier

Chet Atkins- A Tribute To Chet Atkins (1980)
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD Stereo, DD 5.1 (extrapolated)
Extras: None
Length: 99 minutes
Rating: **** (country western fans)

Colors aren’t as vibrant as some of the newer concert videos you might watch, but otherwise the video quality on this disc is more than acceptable. Sound is good, and there is an orchestra backing the legendary guitarist. The atmosphere is light and funny, and not unlike many other TV specials that you’d see 20 years ago. The Charlie Daniels Band tribute to America could be played today and evoke the same response as the crowd at this performance. Most of the tunes are country western like you’d expect given Chet’s background. All the artists are stars in their own right, so the performance is quite good. It’s a real treat to hear Chet, Roger Miller, and Don Everly play guitar and sing “Bye Bye Love.” Jim Stafford’s “Mama Knows” is another really good song to check out if you aren’t familiar with it. It’s quite a funny tongue and cheek song that gets the crowd all riled up. For a little change of pace is a quartet playing “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”—an enjoyable instrumental that reminds me of a band playing at a fair in the old days. And when Earl Klugh brings out the classical guitar—watch out! The show closes with a soft instrumental medley that puts the finishing touches on a pleasant evening.

Songs included are: Chet Atkins- Battle Of New Orleans, Sugarfoot Rag; Charlie Daniels Band- In America; Chet Atkins & Ray Stevens- Frog Kissin’; Tom T. Hall- The Year That Clayton Delaney Died; Roger Miller- In The Summertime; Chet Atkins & Don Everly- Bye Bye Love; Charley Pride- Kiss An Angel Good Morning; Porter Wagoner- Everything I Ever Wanted; Bobby Dare- Four Strong Winds, Detroit City, Shame On Me; Don Gibson- Oh Lonesome Me; Ray Stevens- Night Games; Jim Stafford- Mama Knows; Chet Atkins, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randoff & Danny Davis- Just A Closer Walk With Thee; Chet Atkins & Earl Klugh- Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues; Statler Bros.- Chet Atkins Hands; Chet Atkins- Instrumental Medley.

-Brian Bloom

Travel the World with Putumayo (2004)

Collection of World Music Videos
Studio: Putumayo
Video: 4:3
Audio: PCM stereo
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French, German
Extras: Live concert footage of two of the performers, Bios of all performers, The Putumayo Story video
Length: 65 minutes
Rating: ****

I should admit right off that I’m not a particular fan of the new brand of world pop/folk music in general, though I do enjoy certain international musics such as steel drums, gamelan, koto/shakuhachi and anything Brazilian. In spite of that I was completely captivated by this visual presentation of the type of world music culture CDs the enterprising Putumayo label has been putting out for years now and marketing in alternate ways from the usual record shops. There are a dozen music videos here from the Czech Republic, Canada, Brazil, India, Argentina and many African countries. Some are visually up to the production standards of MTV while others are rather crude. The English subtitles for the lyrics made them much more interesting to watch and understand. The bios of all the featured artists were also a boon to greater understanding. They identified many of the videos as being shot in Paris since that is a hotbed of world music today.

The Argentine/French co-production was a fascinating black and white video based on the tango but run thru ambient/electronica. It’s easy to see why the video featuring top Egyptian singer Hisham Abbas – and the first music video ever shot at the Taj Mahal – was placed last in this compendium. It’s an absolute hoot! – all shot in the Bollywood style. You will be amazed. The bonus concert footage of performers from Zimbabwe and Mali is watchable/listenable but not up to the level of the music videos.

- John Sunier

Morgan Heritage- Live in Europe (2004)

Studio: Universal
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD Stereo
Extras: Jump Around Europe Music Video, Discography, Interviews
Length: 190 minutes
Rating: **** (for the reggae crowd)

Morgan Heritage has been around since 1992 and was founded by Denroy Morgan, some of the band member’s father. He had a hit song with “I’ll Do Anything For You” in 1981, and helps to keep the group focused. The interviews on the disc give nice background on the band, the members of the band, and what the band is all about. The camera work on this video jumps around a bit, but not as quickly as some other discs I’ve seen—thankfully. Every few seconds there are a few different camera angles, although primary focus is on the lead singer. The topics of the songs are similar to other reggae bands (freedom/loving one other/spreading peace/etc), but the quality of the sound and performance is especially good. The whole band gets into the action and Morgan Heritage deliver an impressive concert. The Three In One Mix section includes occasional commentary and although some of the songs are repeated, there is footage from up to three different concerts for the same song. The band has a wealth of material to play, and all of it is good. If you are interested in finding out what is happening on the reggae scene these days, there is no better place to start.

The disc is broken down into two sections. The first one is called Paradiso and took place on July 25, 2003. The songs at that concert are: Intro/Don’t Haffi Dread; Live Up; Ready To Work; Liberation; What We Need Is Love; Helping Hand; More Teachings; Maskal Square; Nice Up U Medi; Falling Race; She’s Still Loving Me; Down by The river; Reggae Bring Back Love; Everything Is Still Everything.

The second section called Three In One Mix contains music from 3 different locations and dates: Parkpop in June 28, 2003, the Paleo Festival on July 24, 2003, and the Paradiso date on July 25, 2003. Songs are: Intro/Don’t Haffi Dread; Live Up; Liberation; What We Need Is Love; Helping Hand; More Teachings; The Truth; Nice Up U Medi; Falling Race; Jump Around; Down By The River Reggae Bring Back Love; Everything Is Still Everything.

-Brian Bloom

Watch This! Music Videos (2004)
Studio: Zoe/Rounder
Video: 1.33:1 Full Frame
Audio: DD 2.0 Stereo
Extras: None
Length: ~33 minutes
Rating: ***1/2

“I’m So Open” is one of the better songs off the Cowboy Junkies’ Open CD. Actual video is letterboxed. The video consists of the band playing in an empty apartment intercut with a young girl who is trying to break free of the trappings of adulthood and have fun and be free. Most of Harmer’s story has her singing to the camera and talking about her being stuck in her life, confined, and unable to extricate herself symbolized by her in a basement apartment with people around who are oblivious to her existence. It’s pretty good—a nice mix between the video and the music. Cockburn’s video is in black and white and starts with some stop-motion video of pictures of the city. I’m not sure what the cute, half-naked girl had to do with anything, but I’m not complaining. I guess the idea is that the city is open [for business] and so is he (or people in general). It too is a decent rock song and keeps interest. Kathleen Edwards’ tune is more country/folk rock. The video consists of her lazing in bed, and then various shots of her traveling and playing guitar. I commented on the meaning of this song in a previous music review. It sure seems much more optimistic in the video than the lyrics suggest. “Sea of No Cares” looks like 2.35:1 and the band is walking on the beach or in the water singing and playing their instruments. They remind me a little of Hootie and the Blowfish mixed with the Rembrandts. It’s a happy, uplifting song—the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and everyone one in the video seems to be having a blast. The title basically says it all. The Cash Brothers are on the top of building next to other skyscrapers talking about doubt…or something. Truth is, I didn’t want to keep listening to the song to try and figure out what it was about and there weren’t any lyrics in the booklet. It’s rockin’, but it seems a bit vague to me.

Phillips’ video is the most visually interesting with all sorts of cartoon-ish figures floating in and out of the background. It’s full of the artist in multiple outfits and bright colors, and a robot. “You can’t take that away cuz the gods make sure we all get a taste.” Uh huh. Blue Rodeo’s song is slower and mellower than most of the others—kind of a rock ballad. The video has the look of old film almost like snapshots that fade in and out of the background with the leader singer playing live with other backgrounds that come and go. The song isn’t bad, but the video isn’t great. Videos included: Cowboy Junkies “I’m So Open”; Sarah Harmer “Basement Apartment”; Bruce Cockburn “Open”; Kathleen Edwards “Six O’Clock News”; Great Big Sea “Sea Of No Cares”; The Cash Brothers “shadow Of Doubt”; Grant-Lee Phillips “We All Get A Taste”; Blue Rodeo “Bulletproof.”

-Brian Bloom

Monster (2004)

Starring: Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, Bruce Dern
Studio: Columbia TriStar
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1
Subtitles: Spanish
Extras: Theatrical trailer, International trailer, Featurette, DTS Film Mixing Demo Featurette, Interview with Director Patty Jenkins
Length: 109 minutes
Rating: ****

Theron received the Academy Award for Best Actress for this film at last year’s Oscars ceremony. Roger Ebert called it one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema. It is based on the true story of convicted and now-executed killer Aileen Wuornos. She was abused and unloved from early years, with seemingly all the cards stacked against her. She turned to highway prostitution and ran into a client who tortured and nearly killed her. She got the upper hand briefly and shot him. After that she killed six other men within a year – most of whom had done nothing untoward. Her hooking up with a naive young lesbian girl who was leaving home (played by Ricci) could have stopped the violence but failed to.

Terrific acting by all concerned; both Theron and Ricci are completely believable in their roles. The cinematography is fine but doesn’t call attention to itself, allowing the viewer to really get into the story and characters. Excellent use of surround in the music tracks and sound effects, probably highlighted in the DTS 5.1 option. I thought it interesting that the soundtrack disc (also reviewed this issue in Special Features) didn’t seem to have nearly as much actual identifiable music on it as heard on the soundtrack of the film. Perhaps a problem of getting clearances. This was a difficult film to watch in some ways, but so well done that at its conclusion you can only cheer writer-director Jenkins and the entire cast. The extras are interesting but if you can handle it see the documentary reviewed below for the full back story.

- John Sunier

Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003)

Studio: Columbia/Sony Pictures
Directed by: Nick Broomfield and Joan Churchill
Video: 1.85 Full Frame
Audio: Dolby Digital Surround
Subtitles: French
Length: 89 minutes
Rating: ****

This excellent award winning documentary isn’t only about Aileen Wuornos, executed in 2002 for the killing of seven men in the space of one year. It is also an insightful look into this country’s legal system as it pertains to the death penalty. (The recent movie Monster is also reviewed in this issue. Though a tough movie to view, it was considerably easier to watch than this totally real look at a kind of existence most of us prefer not to think about.)

Aileen Wuornos was arrested in Florida in 1991 and executed in 2002. She “passed” a psychiatric exam the day before her execution which caused the director Nick Broomfield, who had interviewed her on a number of occasions, to remark “What would one have to do to fail?” Massive paranoia was obvious during her last interview with him. She was most definitely psychotic. The law does not intend for the insane to be executed but Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida, signed her execution papers. An election was looming.

Broomfield portrays Wuornos as somewhat sympathetic which makes this film fascinating though difficult to take in. (It should be noted that the sexual and violent language is intense and this film should not be viewed by children or young teenagers.) Mainly through interviews by Broomfield with her as well as with a number of persons from her past and those connected with her legal case, the picture of Aileen that emerges is that of someone who was betrayed by just about everyone close to her for her entire life. There is also news footage and the police video of her original confession. One thing that presents Aileen as a human being despite the monstrous nature of her actions is the photo in the opening scene of Aileen at age 4. Later we see many photos of her presented by someone who knew Aileen growing up in Michigan.

It is the filmmaker’s belief that her first victim had tortured Wuornos so severely that she was pushed into insanity that led to the other six murders. Her great love of about three years duration, Tyria, knew about the murders but said nothing, becoming a witness for the state to save herself and also attempted to make money on a movie deal. I would just as soon never have learned of something as sordid and nightmarish as the nature of Aileen’s childhood. It isn’t surprising that she became a murderous hitchhiking hooker.

Leaving Michigan for Florida at age 19, she met and married a 76 year old respectable man with money. Her violent temper led to her beating him with his cane, so that marriage did not last long. Of course, none of her behavior is excusable but learning of the details about this total wreck of a human being at least creates some understanding. Her early life as both a child and teenager contained more abuse and humiliation than anyone should ever have to endure. There was no intervention that might have been helpful to her.

In one of the final interviews, Broomfield asks, “Would your life have been different if you hadn’t been on the street?” Aileen responds “I would have become an outstanding citizen of America, an archaeologist, a paramedic, a police officer, . . . I would have done it real decent.” The happiest time in your life? “I can’t think of anything. I’m so f_____ mad, I can’t see straight.” As her massive paranoia unfolds, it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to observe that Aileen Wuornos was not of sound mind. Defiant and angry to the end, she sent the pre-execution priest packing.

If the subject matter is of interest, by all means see this excellent documentary. But if I had it to do over, I would have avoided this most painful look into a tragic wasted life, a tragedy compounded many times over by seven murders and an execution which did not follow the rule of law.

- Donna Dorsett

Paycheck (Special Collector’s Edition)(2003)

Starring: Ben Affleck, Uma Thurman, Aaron Eckhart, Paul Giamatti, Colm Feore
Directed by: John Woo
Studio: Paramount Home Entertainment
Video: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Audio: English DD 5.1, English DD 2.0, French DD 5.1
Subtitles and Captions: English and English Closed Captions
Extras: Commentary by Director John Woo, commentary by Screenwriter Dean Georgaris, “Paycheck: Designing the Future” featurette, “Tempting Fate: The Stunts of Paycheck” featurette, six extended/deleted scenes, alternate ending, four preview trailers, scene selection
Length: 118 minutes
Rating: ***

Michael Jennings is a reverse engineer that is hired to deconstruct technology products and then rebuild them. After completing each project, Jennings’ short-term memory is erased so he can’t recount the details of his assignment. Jennings’ latest project requires him to spend three years in seclusion in return for an eight-figure paycheck. At the conclusion of the three years and after having his memory wiped, Jennings is astounded to discover that he has forfeited his $90 million paycheck in return for twenty seemingly worthless items. Jennings is left to try and solve the mystery of what caused him to trade away such sizable wealth. Paycheck is a sleek, sci-fi thriller with some outstanding action sequences. The film reminds me of a cross between Minority Report and Memento. Ben Affleck does another fine job of acting and continues to demonstrate why he is fast becoming Hollywood’s premiere young action star. Recommended. [Wouldn’t miss it because I try to see everything sci-fi anyway, but I think Woo - and his plot - got a bit carried away with his woo-woo flying gung fu gimmicks...Ed.]

The overall video quality of this DVD is excellent. Images are pristine with fine detail. Colors are rich and deep with fully saturated hues. Blacks are consistently dark throughout. Picture defect mastering is perfect with no major flaws or compression artifacts. The overall audio quality is also excellent with the English Dolby Digital 5.1 track serving as the basis for this review. The soundtrack actively incorporates all of the discrete audio channels into the mix. Dialogue is crisp and natural sounding. The surround channels are aggressively utilized for both sound effects and the music score, plus also include numerous split rear effects. The low frequency channel delivers powerful, penetrating bass to the film’s action scenes. Tactile sound effects appear as subtle to occasionally heavy impacts resulting from both the action scenes and the music soundtrack.

Reference equipment used for this review: [Video projector- Studio Experience Cinema 17SF; Projection screen- Da-Lite 106” Da-Snap; DVD player- V, Inc. Bravo D1; A/V Receiver- Sherwood Newcastle R-963T; Speakers- BIC DV62si mains, DV62CLRs center, Adatto DV52si rears, D1210R subwoofer; Tactile Transducers- Clark Synthesis Gold; Video Switcher- Key Digital SW4x1; Cables/Wires-Bettercables.com ]
Osama (2003)

Directed by Siddiq Barmak
Studio: Barmak Film/MGM
Video: 1.85:1 enhanced for widescreen
Audio: Dolby Digital mono, in Pashtu with English subtitles
Extras: Featurette “Sharing Hope and Freedom,” Theatrical trailer
Length: 1 hours 23 minutes
Rating: ****

The Afghani film was made there just after the fall of the Taliban. It has many breathtaking scenes which seem more like a documentary than a feature except for the image quality being so excellent and everything so beautifully composed and shot. A mother whose husband was killed in the war has a 12-year old daughter plus her own mother. About to starve, the widow cuts her daughter’s hair (planting it in a pot), dresses her as a boy and finds her a job as apprentice to a merchant. But soon all the boys – including her – are rounded up to go to Taliban school and learn to be soldiers. Her terrifying situation only gets worse and she is eventually discovered to be a girl. Her only option to avoid being stoned to death is being given in marriage to an old mullah who already has several young wives. A depressing but extremely moving film that brings viewer closer to the chaos of the region which defeat of the Taliban has not solved by any means.

- John Sunier




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