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William Sommerwerck "grizzled geezer" RSS Feed (Renton, WA USA)

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Brokeback Mountain [Blu-ray]
Brokeback Mountain [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Charles Wuorinen
Price: $35.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars an opera that's easy to quit, February 28, 2015
I sat through this on the medici site when it premiered. I was hoping for something great -- a work that would become a repertory piece in at least a few American opera companies. Instead, I watched an opera with unappealing music and a libretto with fundamental dramatic flaws.

Charles Wuorinen is an American composer who became well-known for a work commissioned by Nonesuch, "Time's Encomium". It's an unusual work -- structured by rhythm, rather than thematic development -- that's not like his later music. Wuorinen believes that Schoenberg got it right, and that twelve-tone composition is //the only// way music should be written. * (He's not alone in this.) I've heard several of Wuorinen's pieces on CD, and they sound like watered-down Schoenberg. This might explain why his commissioned works have been generally successful with audiences -- modern, but not overly modern.

Annie Proulx's libretto changes things a bit, with a suggestion that the spirit of Lureen's father might have arranged Jack's death -- not a bad idea for an opera (qv, "Don Giovanni"). Unfortunately, she makes mistakes that anyone knowing the basic principles of writing for the stage and screen would have caught. There’s no need for Jack to say “I’m here for you”, when we //see him// “being here” by embracing Ennis. Why does Ennis have to say “You complete me”, when that could — and should — have been said in the music (a simple tonal theme, perhaps)? ** There are places where Wuorinen should have said to Proulx “Take that out — I’ll put it in the music” (qv, Judy’s final transformation to Madeleine in "Vertigo").

One reviewer said that it was a work "hard to love". The one "love-ly" thing is the opening, music suggesting the outdoors and open air -- of a "dark" and threatening environment. Then the piece sinks into atonality (or whatever) and never surfaces. One wonders what Bernard Herrmann would have done with it.

Absolutely Not Recommended.

* Schoenberg famously remarked that there was a lot of great music in C major left to be written.
** What if Ennis and Jack's music had been tonal, with the rest of the score unchanged?
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 2, 2015 6:26 AM PST

Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 / Serenades Nos. 1 & 2 / Haydn Variations
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4 / Serenades Nos. 1 & 2 / Haydn Variations
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5.0 out of 5 stars great Brahms, February 20, 2015
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Unlike the Beethoven symphonies, which are often poorly performed, Brahms is well-represented on disk. There are plenty of good sets -- and this is one of the very best.

Kertész drowned at the age of 43, but he left a lot of wonderful recordings. One of his virtues is spontaneity -- his performances "just happen", without any sense of the music being intellectually overanalyzed. (This is particularly true of his Dvorak cycle.)

I prefer brisk performances (of anything), but am often bothered (speaking very generally) by modern conductors' tendency to race superficially through a work, or play unnaturally slowly on the assumption that slowness automatically evokes profundity. One's initial reaction to Kertész can be that he's a /trifle/ on the slow side. But he uses the extra time for expressive, deeply felt performances devoid of idiosyncrasy or mannerisms. He is alternately thrilling and soul-stirring.

This set includes the Haydn Variations, and jump-out-of-your-seat interpretations of the Serenades.

Kertész is unquestionably one of the great 20th-century conductors. Just about anything he conducted is worth hearing -- and this set is worth owning.

Firefly: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
Firefly: The Complete Series [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Nathan Fillion
Price: $19.99
68 used & new from $8.97

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars what "Star Trek" could/should/might have been, February 13, 2015
I'm writing a four-star review because I want to point out a few problems with what should have been a five-star series. Don 't let that keep you from buying it!. "Firefly" is a thoroughly entertaining program. (I was given a copy ten years ago by a late friend, and I've just watched it for a second time.)

"Firefly" is, in broad terms, a Western, so let's take a backward glance at "Gunsmoke". "Gunsmoke" is not merely an iconic Western, but an iconic TV series. It has a startlingly high percentage of good episodes, with the best truly memorable story telling. (Try "Thirty and Month and Found" or "Saturday Night".) Matt Dillon is a conflicted "hero" who beats up people if they don't do what he wants. He loves Miss Kitty (a prostitute), but never actually says "I love you." And he has little desire to get emotionally close to anyone. *

Sound familiar? Malcolm Reynolds is a lot like Marshall Dillon, and it's unlikely the parallel is an accident. (Note Malcolm's unspoken affection for the ship's professional "companion".) The problem is... "Gunsmoke" succeeded, not because of, but in spite of, having an almost-humorless, sometimes brutal, and ultimately rather prickly character in the lead. Fox was unhappy with Reynolds' original darkness/dourness, and pressured Joss Whedon into making him more comic (the 20-year success of "Gunsmoke" notwithstanding). Mal (get it?) became a fount of wisecracks, even in the face of death.

It fails (for this viewer, anyway). Nathan Fillion isn't old enough, or a sufficiently sophisticated actor, nor is the writing disciplined enough, for this to work. I just don't believe the character, especially as he still seems at least damp behind the ears. He's hard-bitten, but lacking the outward manner that should go with it. (One need only glance at Matt Dillon to see he's a dude you don't want to mess with.) Malcolm is such an incoherent mixture of idealism and selfishness that it's hard to believe either. The characters /say/ they don't always like his behavior, but they hang around, nonetheless.

The supporting characters are interesting, especially the mechanic (a young woman) and the doctor (who's not the "crusty" type one expects). But Jayne Cobb is a problem. Why did Malcolm hire someone for whom money is the most-important thing in life, with everything else a distant tenth? By the seventh episode, he's betrayed the crew twice, and Malcolm threatens to toss him out the airlock. Why doesn't he?

Jayne also breaks a storytelling rule -- never have two characters with the same point of view. Malcolm and Jayne are too much alike, the difference being mostly quantitative. Whedon might have done some interesting things with this, but we will never know.

Note that Joss Whedon has no hesitation showing kissing and quasi-sexual relations between women, but declines to show them between men (even though the existence of male prostitutes is acknowledged). Jayne Cobb would have been more interesting as a sly (that's the series' word) man.

One might also gripe that, in armed battles, the crew is invariably victorious, even when facing better-armed people who should be more-skilled fighters. This hurts credulity.

On the technical side... Kudos to Whedon for maintaining silence in the vacuum of space. But his decision to eschew FTL travel leaves us wondering how the Serenity gets around so quickly. Ditto for what appears to be the use of conventional radio (rather than "subspace" communications). In fact, the series gets virtually every "scientific" point wrong.

Regardless, "Firefly" is superior fare, and a good way to fill up those empty hours of our meaningless existences.

"Firefly" has no rating. As most parents don't give a damn what their children watch (and the rest get upset over minor things, such as characters saying "damn"), there seems little point in mentioning that "Firefly" is sometimes brutally violent. It's no more violent than "Gunsmoke", but here we /see/ blood (and sometimes gore). Mal and Petaline (a prostitute) commit murder -- but so do Matt Dillon and Festus Hagen. "Firefly" is a TV-14 series, and some episodes approach TV-MA (such as the one in which Blue Sun employees murder people with a device that ruptures their cranial blood vessels). It is absolutely not for pre-teens.

* Raylan Givens ("Justified") is a successful attempt to recreate Matt Dillon in a modern context.

Extreme Glare-Pilot Style-Blue Solid on Gray lens
Extreme Glare-Pilot Style-Blue Solid on Gray lens
Offered by Extreme Glare Sunglasses
Price: $89.00

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars they don't block polarized glare, February 5, 2015
Some time ago I complained to Zurich that these glasses couldn't possibly block glare. I was sent a sample pair at no charge to confirm or deny their glare-blocking abilities. (I sent Zurich two Polaroid 3D viewers for the Chrysler exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair. The connection will be made later.)

There are two forms of glare. One is any blast of light that blinds you. These do a pretty good job reducing that. The other is the light reflected from non-metallic surfaces -- especially the road.

This light is horizontally polarized. (Aha!) Vertically polarized filters block this glare. The Zurichs have no polarization, and are therefore no better than ordinary sunglasses at blocking polarized glare. They're reasonably well-made, and the lens appears to be optically perfect (no waviness or stress lines). But they're not worth $90. (No sunglasses are worth $90.)

When I was younger, and lived in sunshiny-er states, I wore sunglasses -- and only those with polarizing lenses. Trust me. They're what you want.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 8, 2015 7:01 AM PST

Guardians of the Galaxy (3D Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital Copy)
Guardians of the Galaxy (3D Blu-ray + Blu-ray + Digital Copy)
DVD ~ Chris Pratt
Price: $24.96
40 used & new from $21.48

20 of 42 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars "Prosthesis" is not a dirty word., January 24, 2015
I desperately wanted to like this film. But the many negatives so heavily outweigh the few positives, I can't.

The easiest way to sum it up is... I've seen it all before. I will be 68 in May. I read science fiction stories and novels as a kid, watched "Star Trek" and "The Outer Limits", on TV, and was thrilled by "Star Wars" when it opened. Fantasy and science fiction not yet having deeply penetrated popular culture, all had a degree of novelty. That is what "Guardians of the Galaxy" lacks. It hasn't an original idea in its head. And I don't think my less-than-sanguine reaction is the result of getting old and grumpy (though I am).

I doubt James Gunn was consciously copying -- any more than writing stories about hard-boiled detectives automatically plagiarizes Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler. But that doesn't lessen his responsibility to be aware of the possibility.

Watching "Guardians", my oft-repeated reaction was "Oh, that's the [scene] from [movie]." Screenwriters are oft-advised there's only a certain number of basic stories. A movie has to find something novel in its treatment of tropes we're all familiar with. Gunn must not have been in class that day. (His writing has other failings -- notably having characters discuss things we've just seen. And he hasn't learned how to write terse dialog.)

And then there's the problem of tone. "Guardians" is both a farcical parody of comic books, and an attempt to tell a story about beings with real feelings. It's hard to get these to play together well. We're apparently expected to "recognize" characters from other films (eg, Rocket is Han Solo and Groot is Chewbacca), and thereby "fill in the blanks" this story leaves vacant. Perhaps if there had been fewer loud action sequences, there would have been more time to explore the characters and their relationships.

Tyler Bates' forgettable score does nothing to enhance anything about the film -- either its action sequences or tongue-in-cheek humor. It's easy to predict that Mr Bates will never write a classic (or even near-classic) film score. I urge him to study Bernard Herrmann's and Jerry Goldsmith's scores -- especially "The Trouble with Harry" and "Gremlins".

It is unlikely I will watch this film a second time.

ADDENDUM: I decided to watch a second time (on a 60" plasma), demoting "Guardians" from two stars to one in the process. It's a loud, tedious, bore -- so annoying/boring that I gave up halfway through. It's a model of how eating sugary foods destroys one's taste for meals with nutritional substance. I suspect Mr Gunn knows nothing but pop culture, never having read a good book or listened to good music. (Brahms' "Song of Destiny" is not only good music, but profound. "The Piña Colada Song" is neither. Quill's mother had atrocious taste.) It is incomprehensible this film received so many favorable reviews, including one from the generally insightful Kenneth Turan.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 31, 2015 12:09 PM PST

The Guns of Navarone [Blu-ray]
The Guns of Navarone [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ David Niven
Price: $13.49
37 used & new from $5.98

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Gregory Peck strikes back! (or not), January 23, 2015
Last night, Movies! showed the original "3:10 to Yuma". Desiring to fine-tune my thoughts about this excellent film, I watched it for the third or fourth time. (The mean-spirited remake is interesting, but the original remains superior.) "The Guns of Navarone" followed. Not having seen it in many years, I gave it a shot. (Hmmm...)

I saw "Guns" in 1961, at the age of 14. I was on the edge of my seat during the climactic sequence in which the ammunition lift makes repeated journeys. It is only on the third passage (natch) that the wires leading to the detonator are finally shorted, and everything goes KABLOOEY!

Time has not been kind to "Guns". It is much less than the sum of its parts. Though it moves at a reasonable pace, and the editing is crisp, it takes an awfully long time for anything exciting -- or even suspenseful -- to occur. This is partly due to Carl Foreman's occasionally talky script, but mostly to J Lee Thompson's direction.

Thompson would never appear on anyone's list of great directors. Here he simply walks through the material (albeit briskly -- andante con moto), without subtlety or any obvious attempt to add tension to what is, for most of its run, a largely tension-free story. "Guns" must have been a long and difficult shoot, and Peck complimented Thompson for his efficiency. But -- even allowing for the fact that Thompson was a last-minute replacement -- that's no excuse for a director failing to rise above the level of a train conductor.

Then there's GREG-ory PECK, the king of stolid. Here's a man who's extremely good-looking, obviously intelligent, and aware of his failings as an actor. He's a major star, and has nothing to lose by arising from his seeming torpor and //trying// to project character into his character. His failure to reveal Mallory's inner turmoil -- except when the script gives him the required lines -- is inexcusable. (David Niven compensates by badly overacting.)

"Guns" is largely humor-free, the only significant joke involving a dead rat. Thompson doesn't play it up as much as he might have.

I'm not a big fan of Dmitri Tiomkin, but once he discovered his ability to pastiche famous composers, he turned out a number of attractive scores, of which "Guns" is one. (The pastichee here is Elgar.)

"Guns" probably worked better in a theater, where it wasn't interrupted by commercials. But it's not a particularly satisfying film, let alone a classic.

Complete Brandenburg Concertos / Overtures 1 & 2
Complete Brandenburg Concertos / Overtures 1 & 2
Offered by Discount Music, Books, and other items
Price: $28.95
25 used & new from $1.20

5.0 out of 5 stars THE set to own. Yes, really., January 21, 2015
I've had this set for several years, and have finally gotten around to posting a review.

I've always had trouble with the Brandenburgs. Not the music itself, but with the performances. I never heard one -- not even from my belovéd Jordi Savall -- that sounded quite right. Then I came across Helmut Winschermann, conducting the orchestra he founded in 1960 (the German Bach Soloists).

These performances -- and those of the Orchestral Suites -- eclipse all the other performances I've heard over nearly half a century.

Yes, I know how stupid that sounds. It's one thing to say "This is my favorite performance", or even "This is the best performance", and quite another to say "This is the only good recorded performance." But Winschermann "gets" these works in a way that no one else does.

He conducts in a light, buoyant, dancelike manner, and never falls into the chug-chugga-chugga slogging that mars every other performance I've heard. His tempos are consistently "baby bear" throughout, and his phrasing felicitous, without being mannered or self-aware.

Perhaps I'm "wired" to like only the Winschermann performances. So be it.

These recordings appear to have been made specifically for LaserLight, a Canadian budget label. The easiest way to get the Brandenburgs and Overtures is to buy a used copy of the 10-disk Bach set. (Volume 3 of this set, which "completes" the two-disk set I'm reviewing here with Orchestral Suites #3 and #4, seems no longer available as a separate disk.)

You are in for a treat.

Triple Concerto & Septet
Triple Concerto & Septet
Price: $9.02
31 used & new from $3.25

5.0 out of 5 stars wonderful performances, January 19, 2015
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I'm delighted to add another five-star review of this recording.

I've always liked the Triple Concerto, and wondered why so many people were down on it. Nevertheless, it was not a work I often listened to.

Here, Bronfman and Zinman work the same magic they did with the piano concertos, stripping away the "heaviness" (which you're not aware of until it's removed) and delivering thoroughly engaging Classical performances.

If you liked their piano concertos (and I can't imagine why you wouldn't), you'll like this recording, too. Self-recommending, as they say.

Seconds (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Seconds (Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Rock Hudson
Offered by westcoastmedia
Price: $24.98
27 used & new from $22.50

4.0 out of 5 stars Leftovers, actually..., January 1, 2015
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"Seconds" could be reasonably rated from one star to five stars. I'd like to give it five, but I've rated it four, because it's impossible to overlook its principal flaw -- Rock Hudson's serious miscasting.

Frankenheimer wanted to use the same actor for Hamilton and Wilson. Hudson accepted the role on the condition he not play Hamilton, thus obliging the casting of John Randolph, a much better actor. In his running commentary, Frankenheimer never explains why Hudson was cast in the first place. But one suspects Paramount insisted on a bankable name for such an odd and disturbing film.

Hudson was an actor -- to put it charitably -- of limited range. Had he played both roles, this wouldn't have mattered so much. Though he does a good job mimicking Randolph's speech patterns and mannerisms, you just don't believe they're the same person. This, too, might be overlooked if it weren't for the party scene, in which Wilson gets drunk and makes a fool of himself. Hudson insisted on playing the scene drunk, and Frankenheimer foolishly accommodated him. The result is amateurish and embarrassing -- and goes on much too long. Frankenheimer should have told Hudson "When you're drunk, you lose control. And that's not acting. We'll help you through this, and you'll see how much more effective playing "drunk" sober is."

Fortunately, "Seconds" is a blunt attack on our society's lack of meaningful values, and can be appreciated on that level, regardless of how you feel about Rock Hudson's performance (and it has a terrific Jerry Goldsmith score). It's a must-see, so it's unfortunate there's no reasonably priced home-video version. (This review is of the out-of-print MGM DVD. Picture and sound are excellent.)

Whether by accident or design, the ending is prefigured early on, though you probably won't notice this on first viewing. It's one of the most shocking endings you will //ever// see in a film. EVER. (That includes "The Culpepper Cattle Co." and the remake of "3:10 to Yuma".)

The King's Speech
The King's Speech
DVD ~ Colin Firth
Price: $4.99
167 used & new from $0.31

5.0 out of 5 stars "Queen Wallis of Baltimore? That won't do!", December 30, 2014
This review is from: The King's Speech (DVD)
My five-star rating is based on "The King's Speech" being a beautifully crafted and thoroughly entertaining film. Not because it won Best Picture. It didn't deserve even a nomination.

It most resembles a big-budget Masterpiece Theater production. It's the kind of story Hollywood loves -- a person with a serious problem, through his own efforts and the help of a good friend, rises above it to achieve greatness. Just because it's true, doesn't make it better than any other film telling a similar story -- or Oscar-worthy. It is yet another example of how the Academy has such a poor understanding of what makes a truly superior motion picture.

The R rating (based on the rule that more than one F-word is enough to get an R rating) is ridiculous. It involves the fact that people rarely stutter when using foul language. There are two brief passages when Albert unleashes a stream of invective to demonstrate this. It's hardly gratuitous, and unlikely to encourage unescorted teenagers to start saying f*** all the time. (Note that "Mud" has a PG-13 rating, despite Neckbone often saying s***. Of course, s*** is a vulgarity, not a sexual obscenity.)

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