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A string quartet, considered by some to be the optimal ensemble in classical music, is a delicate balancing act. Four people work together, closely, for years, rehearsing, traveling and performing. Some of the best string quartets last for decades, but undoubtedly at the price of many compromises. Unlike an orchestra, where there are a large number of musicians and a leader – the conductor – the string quartet’s size makes the interpersonal relations much more intense.
In this poignant film, we see the Fugue Quartet after 25 years of performing together reach a moment of crisis. The cellist, played by Christopher Walken, has a health problem and decides to retire. This brings up a number of conflicts among the four musicians, who are closely knit in many ways. Second violin (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is married to viola (Catherine Keener), there is conflict between first violin (Mark Ivanir) and second violin, and there are a number of subtle links among the musicians, and the daughter of second violin and viola.
The title of this movie is a play on words. It’s about a “late” – deceased – quartet, or more precisely one on the brink of death, but it’s also about one of Beethoven’s late quartets, the op. 131 quartet, which serves as a leitmotif throughout the film. The choice of the name of the quartet, the Fugue Quartet, is also apt: the story itself proceeds like a fugue, with the various threads of love and conflict among the group are subtly woven together until a finale which ties together many threads in a brilliant resolution. This is a very moving film, though it requires a bit of patience as the different “voices” of the fugue are exposed then developed, before the story harmonizes. But it’s well worth sticking with if as the relationships among these characters become more clear.
The acting is excellent, and the direction subtle and understated. Christopher Walken shows extreme restraint throughout, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener are excellent as the married couple living and working together. Mark Ivanir, an actor I was not familiar with, plays an inflexible musician, who learns, in the end, that he, too, needs to give a bit to allow the ensemble to continue.
A beautiful film, with a subtle story, that is memorable and moving.
For an excellent recording of Beethoven’s late quartets, this set by the Takacs Quartet is an excellent choice. And Vikram Seth’s novel An Equal Music also looks at the relations in a string quartet.
Posted: 2/23/2013 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs | 7 Comments »
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This 4-part, 6-hour TV adaptation of Les Misérables has a lot going for it. First of all, the length; it’s the longest adaptation of the novel (arguably the greatest French novel of the 19th century, and one of the longest). It has a large cast, with some excellent actors. Unfortunately, it’s filmed in the typically bland style of French TV, and the direction is nothing more than workmanlike. When I first started watching this, I was almost tempted to give up after 15 minutes. But it got better over time. (I had similar thoughts when watching a recent mini-series based on Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu by the same director, also made for TV.)
Gérard Depardieu plays Jean Valjean, and, for me, he doesn’t quite fit the part. He’s too big, too brash to have the subtlety the character needs. On the other hand, John Malkovich is an excellent Javert, though his dispassionate portrayal of the character can be seen as a bit too distant. Christian Clavier is Thénardier, and seems a bit out of place. A comic actor, generally in simple comedies, his persona doesn’t quite fit. However, Virginie Ledoyen is nearly perfect as Cosette, with her innocence and fetching smiles.
But the main problem here is that everything is too clean, too heroic and idealized. Hugo did not write a novel where everyone is washed and shaved; he wrote about “les misérables,” the downtrodded, the poor. These are people who suffer, not people with clean shirts all the time. In this adaptation, everything is just a bit too perfect. (It’s totally different from the recent adaptation of the musical, which, for all its faults, does show the characters in squalor.)
The good points here are the length: at 6 hours, you do get much more of the story – and it is a complex story – than other versions. But the mediocre direction, so-so acting, and overall approach make it lose points. It’s worth watching if you’re a fan of the novel.
Posted: 2/7/2013 by kirk | Filed under: books, Films & TV Tags: books, DVDs | 5 Comments »
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Daniel Barenboim owns Beethoven! Watching this set of DVDs and listening to his magnificent performances shows why Barenboim is clearly the pre-eminent performer of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. While many will disagree – after all, there are countless recordings by dozens of performers – what comes through after seeing these recitals is the deep familiarity that Barenboim has with the music. Playing these sonatas for some fifty years, they have become a part of him, and this shows in the way he performs these works with such conviction. (And without scores, which, alas, too many performers depend on.)
This set contains films of a series of eight recitals that Barenboim performed in Berlin in 2005, comprising all 32 of the sonatas. Each recital lasts from an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half, and contains four sonatas, a mixture of early, middle and late works. The programs themselves work well, but any selection of sonatas played by Barenboim would be fine. The camera work is among the best I’ve seen for this type of performance; there are enough different camera angles to keep it from being repetitive, and the intensity of watching Barenboim perform is enough to trump the limits of filming. The sound is in PCM stereo or Dolby Digital 5.1; the surround mix is excellent.
Barenboim has already recorded the complete Beethoven sonatas twice: once for EMI when he was in his late twenties, and a second time for DG in the 1980s. One could say that these live recitals are closer to the second recording; slow tempi, much rubato, a great intensity and an often meditative approach to the music. Barenboim shines in the late sonatas, and at the end of the op. 111 sonata (no. 32), his intensity is such that he has to wipe tears from his eyes. But the early Haydnesque/Mozartian sonatas are also wonderful, with a full range of youthful passion.
In addition to the eight recitals, this set contains two DVDs of master classes, where Barenboim shares his knowledge and experience with six young pianists. While much of the discussion is quite technical, even non-musicians will find some of the comments illuminating, providing insights into music in general and these sonatas in particular.
This set is perhaps my best musical purchase in years. I plan to watch these recitals many times, and have gotten many insights into the music – some of the best for piano – simply by watching it performed.
Update: This set is now available on CD, but in sonata order, 1-32, rather than grouped by recital as on the DVDs.
Posted: 11/7/2012 by kirk | Filed under: music Tags: Beethoven, classical music, DVDs | 5 Comments »
One of the most interesting features of OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is AirPlay Mirroring. You can stream what is displayed on your Mac to an Apple TV (and, presumably, other devices will support this in the future). This is very useful if you want to watch videos in formats that iTunes doesn’t support, such as MKVs. The process is quite simple. Here’s how it works:
- From the AirPlay Mirroring icon in the menu bar, choose your Apple TV. This icon displays if you’ve checked the appropriate option in the Display pane of System Preferences.
- Start playing the video you want to watch on your Mac. This could be video on a web site – even Flash video – or files played with a video player such as VLC.
- Sit down in front of your TV and start watching.
At this point, you can sit back and watch your video. The only thing to be aware of is that if you want to pause the video, you need to do so on the Mac; the Apple TV remote won’t do this. If you have another remote, you can pair it to your Mac, so if you plan to use this feature often you can easily pause and restart videos.
I’ve found this to be quite useful. Every day at lunch, I watch the previous day’s episode of the Daily Show from their web site. I used to watch it on my laptop, but now I can pipe it into my TV, which is much more comfortable.
So if you have videos you’d like to watch on your TV, and you have an Apple TV, AirPlay Mirroring will let you watch any video that you can play on your Mac.
Posted: 7/25/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X Tags: Apple TV, DVDs, Mac OS X | 5 Comments »
iTunes’ library contains a number of sub-libraries for the different files it contains: there’s Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, and others. (There are also libraries for non-media content, such as apps, and ringtones, which are only meant to be used on an iPhone.) But one thing that’s missing is a Music Videos library. Music videos get mixed in with your Music library, under the genre, artist and album (if any) they are tagged with.
You can set any type of content to reside in a specific library. For audio content, you can choose Music, Podcast, iTunes U, Audiobook or Voice Memo. For video, you can choose Music Video, Movie, TV Show, Podcast or iTunes U. You can do this for any track by selecting it, pressing Command-I (or Control-I on Windows), then clicking on the Options tab. Choose the library where you want to store the file from the Media Kind menu.
I can understand the idea behind having music videos mixed in with music; they are often part of an album, or if they are pop songs, most iTunes users probably want to play them when they’re listening to music. But it would make more sense if they were in their own library, especially if you have a lot of them.
I have a number of music DVDs that I have ripped, along with some music videos that I’ve gotten with iTunes Store purchases, and I have them as Movies, because it’s just more logical. But they’re not movies; they may actually be TV shows (technically), or simply videos of concerts, operas or other performances. I put many of them as TV Shows, because they have multiple discs, such as the Barenboim on Beethoven set in the screen shot below. Organizing this with each disc as its own movie wouldn’t make sense. The same would be the case for, say, a long opera that is on two discs, or the Grateful Dead’s Closing of Winterland, which is on three discs.
I would like to see a Music Videos library, and give users the options, somewhere in iTunes’ preferences, to either store music videos there or in their Music library. For those who have a lot of videos, it makes sense.
(Note: you can create a Music Videos genre if you wish, and still keep these files in your Music library. Instead of being sorted with the albums they come from, or the artists on them, they’d be in their own genre and easier to spot. But having a separate library is still one step easier.)
Posted: 7/24/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Apple & Mac OS X Tags: digital music, DVDs, iTunes, music | 6 Comments »
Let me begin by showing my age. Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager, my friends and I would often watch late-night TV. Two shows in particular, from what is sometimes called the golden age of television, were our favorites: The Honeymooners and The Twilight Zone. The Twilight Zone for its quirky science fiction, which, even though it was two decades old, still resonated. And The Honeymooners for its intelligent comedy, excellent acting, and the many lines and gestures that became part of our daily life.
In that time, The Honeymooners was on nearly every night on one New York television station; 30 years later, I do not know if that is the case. (A quick glance at some TV listings suggests that it is shown on one channel only at 5 am.) With only 39 episodes, it was easy to become familiar with all of them, and remember the situations and the classic rejoinders.
Beginning in 1955, The Honeymooners had just one season as a sitcom. (Remember when “seasons” were 39 episodes instead of only 13 or 22?) It had begun as a sketch on the Cavalcade of Stars, then later on The Jackie Gleason Show, before getting that single year on its own. Yet that show was so good, the writing and acting so excellent in those 39 shows, that it became a staple of syndication. For decades, at least in New York – and probably much of the US – you could spot Ralph Kramden, Ed Norton, and their wives Alice and Trixie is glorious black-and-white on the tube.
According to this Wikipedia article, one of the reasons that The Honeymooners was able to enjoy such syndication was the quality of the filming. The shows were filmed before a live audience, in two or three acts, with very simple sets, using the Electronicam system, which allowed them to be shot on film. There was little rehearsal for the episodes, and you can tell at times that there are some occasional glitches or improvisations, but the quality of the actors was so high that they could work without a net. This gives a spontaneous feeling to the show, and watching it you can tell that they are not just reciting lines. In many ways, the acting in The Honeymooners seems much more realistic than many of today’s sitcoms, and this in spite of the fact that they were shooting very long takes – 8-10 minutes – instead of lots of short scenes.
In 1984, a major event occurred. The Museum of Television and Radio announced that they had discovered a handful of “lost episodes,” or sketches from The Jackie Gleason show. I recall at the time the wonder that there might be more Honeymooners sketches that I hadn’t seen. It turned out that there were; a total of 107 episodes of varying length were found. The quality of these is not the same as the “classic 39″ episodes, and some of the voices were overdubbed with soundalike actors, because of unusable soundtracks.
The Honeymooners has had a strong impact on American culture. Several generations grew up with the characters of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, and some of the great lines from the series remain in the collective memory:
“Har har, hardee har har!”
“A mere bag of shells…”
“You’re goin’ to the moon Alice!”
“Pins and needles, needles and pins. It’s a happy man that grins.”
“I brive a dus. I dus a brive.”
In addition, The Honeymooners was the inspiration for the animated series The Flintstones. While the writing is nowhere near as slick, the two couples in the show are copies of the Kramdens and the Nortons, with the main difference being the addition of children and pets.
Some time ago, I bought all of The Honeymooners on VHS. Since I live in France, they never get televised, and that was the only way to see them. I only recently got around to getting the DVDs, which are now available at bargain prices. Currently, the Classic 39 Episodes is only $25, and the Lost Episodes $62 (the former is on 8 DVDs, the latter on 15). The quality is variable, which is normal for a series that is more than 50 years old, but the witty humor and great acting remain. If you want to watch an intelligent, unforgettable sitcom, The Honeymooners is better than just about everything that is currently on TV.
Posted: 6/10/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs | 1 Comment »
It’d been years since I had seen Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s excellent science fiction film, and I watched it last night. For a science fiction movie, Stalker is certainly an oddity. Released in 1979, loosely based on the short novel Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and directed by Tarkovsky, the masterful Russian director who lived too short a life, it tells the tale of a part of Russia that has been visited by an odd event. It may have been a meteorite that fell, or it may have been an alien visitation. But the event created the Zone, a dangerous area which was cordoned off by the police, and where few could go.
A Stalker – a sort of guide who takes people through the traps in the Zone – meets up with two men who want to visit the Room, a place where wishes come true. One is a Professor, a man of reason, and the other a writer, a man of inspiration. The Stalker is a man of belief. Very little happens in the movie, which lasts more than 2 1/2 hours, except for their trip to the Room, and their discovery of what they want from it.
Stalker is science fiction only in its premise; there are no aliens, no magic, nothing that would be noticed as science fiction. It is a slow movie; very little happens, and some of the shots are several minutes long. It’s a science fiction movie as it would have been written by Samuel Beckett. Yet it’s a brilliant existential examination of the desires of men and women.
At first, the film begins in sepia-toned black-and-white, but once the three characters reach the Zone, the film changes to color. Just as Oz was in color, so was the Zone. The Zone is located outside an industrialized city, and is full of the detritus of modernity. Yet Tarkovsky films these banal, cast-off items with the plastic beauty that he showed in all his films. Some of the shots are breathtakingly haunting, yet there is nothing special in them.
In a prescient shot, near the end of the movie, the Stalker can be seen returning to his home with his wife and daughter, and, across the river, a nuclear power plant is seen. The Zone could be the area surrounding Chernobyl. There is no devastation, simply signs of nature taking over some human artefacts.
Posted: 5/7/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs, existentialism, movies, science fiction, Tarkovsky | 2 Comments »
According to an interview with the production designer, the film took two years to shoot. The first year’s footage was lost, apparently because it was an experimental film stock that couldn’t be developed. (Though that suggests that it was only sent for development after the entire film was shot, which seems at odds with the way movies were created at the time.) Tarkovsky then started over, reshooting the entire movie, over another year.
The DVD is decently produced, though the English subtitles are a bit clunky. It contains the original mono soundtrack, and also a recent 5.1 mix, which, in my opinion, ruins the movie. It is merely the mono soundtrack with added environmental sounds, trying to create “atmosphere,” yet Tarkovsky used a lot of silence in this film, and the surround mix is never quiet.
I first saw Stalker in the early 1980s at a retrospective of movies by Wim Wenders in New York. Wenders had made a selection of films to be shown with his movies, and, preceding his Kings of the Road (In the Course of Time), was Stalker and John Ford’s The Searchers. All three of these movies are quests, searches for people or ideas, and the very long program that day (more than 7 hours) was an extraordinary example of three different approaches to the quest movie. Since then, it has been one of my favorite films. It’s an odd movie, more like a Beckett play than science fiction, yet it is unforgettable.
If you’ve never seen Stalker, and this review makes it sound interesting, you should be all means watch it. It is a truly unforgettable movie by one of the great directors of the 20th century. His life and career were too short, but his films are all masterpieces.
Update: Author Geoff Dyer has written an entire book about Stalker called Zona. I haven’t read this book yet, but I plan to.
I’ve never been especially interested in “period dramas,” but I heard about Downton Abbey, and thought I’d check it out. The first two seasons have already been broadcast in the UK, and are available on DVD. In the US, the second season is starting today on PBS.
This is a series about a quintessential British country manor. The house looks huge, even though you only see a handful of rooms in the show. There is an aristocratic family, headed by the Earl of Grantham, a surprisingly liberal aristocrat. He has an American wife, and three daughters. Downstairs are the servants, an interesting crew of footman, maids and cooks. Much of the story involves the relations between the two groups, as well as the romantic doings of the sisters.
Yes, this is an upscale soap opera, not my usual type of TV. But from the very first episode, I was drawn into the wonderful writing (coming close to Aaron Sorkin’s work) and the excellent acting of the entire cast. I didn’t know many of the actors, but one who stands out is the venerable Maggie Smith who gets a large number of bon mots, as the Dowager Countess and the Earl’s mother. There is quite a large cast for a series, allowing for a number of story lines to take place concurrently, yet you never get a feeling that there’s too much going on.
The series manages to be extremely interesting throughout, without slipping into overt soap opera situations, and factors in the events of the time. Beginning in 1912, the day after the sinking of the Titanic, it goes on through World War I, which has a major role in the series.
It’s important to not watch the US versions of the first season. The seven one-hour episodes were, for some reason, cut down to four 90-minute episodes for the US. You can see a number of different versions here on Amazon.com, with both the US versions and UK versions available. Or you can get them for much less from Amazon UK.
It’s worth noting that after the end of season 2 there is a 90-minute episode called Christmas at Downton Abbey. The title suggests that it’s just some kind of Christmas story, but it’s actually the season finale, and you simply must see it after watching all of season 2.
I was surprised to be so attracted to this series, but the quality of the writing and acting is well above average. Even if you don’t usually care for this sort of thing, I’d recommend checking it out. You may, like me, become an immediate convert.
Posted: 1/8/2012 by kirk | Filed under: Films & TV Tags: DVDs | No Comments »