The Girls in the Band

A-Girls in the Band           GIRLS IN THE BAND   How many of these names do you recognize? Marian McPartland, Esperanza Spalding, Herbie Hancock, Patrice Rushen, Ina Ray Hutton? Possibly the last one. They are only a few of the many female jazz musicians that struggled to be heard in a country that was sexist even more than racist, while men like Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, and Duke Ellington made the headlines.

Virgil Films has brought to DVD a wonderful documentary titled “The Girls in the Band,” directed by Judy Chaikin, that tells in 88 minutes the story of these women whose love for jazz made them face all the obstacles that the male domination and racial bigotry could put in their way.

The most interesting story is that of a white woman playing in an all-Black women’s band, who had to hide as much as possible when they did a gig down south. How much have things changed since then, one might wonder.

The format gives each artist time to have her own story told through vintage films, stills, and interviews. There are several bonus features, the best of which is an ironic recreation of a photo taken decades ago in Harlem in which dozens of male jazz artists posed along with only three women. See for yourself how this wrong was righted!

I personally do not like jazz, but I do admire the artistry of those highlighted in this film.


Art of the Heist

A-Art of the HeistDocumentary Shows Art Heists as an Art

It might be argued that the theft of great art is the worst theft imaginable because it takes from the world a thing of great beauty. (I think stealing from the poor is worse, but let that go for the sake of this review.) A series called “Art of the Heist” and subtitled “Inside the art world’s biggest thefts” is now available in a set of 4 DVDs from Athena Learning and makes a strong case for that opening thesis.

There are 14 cases of art thefts included in this miniseries, starting with the heist of several works of art from a Stockholm museum and ending with a single man taking and holding for ransom the famous Cellini Salt Cellar by simply climbing up a scaffolding to the 7th floor of a Viennese museum under renovation and down again with the object.

In most cases, art thefts from museums have been facilitated by shamefully inadequate security measures, as in the case of the Gardner Museum in Boston and even the Hermitage in St. Petersburg in which the curator of all the art not on public display simply took about 200 items home in her bag.

imagesOf course, we have the defilers of tombs in Egypt (as in many a Mummy film) and of churches that housed mosaics and icons of great artistic value. The case of the Nazis’ taking a Klimt portrait of a lady was recently made into a film and is told more briefly here. Ironically, the original title was changed by the thieves to “The Lady in Gold” because the Lady in question was Jewish. Probably the most famous case is the taking of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.

Some of the cases seem clones of others, some are quite unique. The almost comical actions of the Cellini thief could have made a good episode of “Lovejoy.” Among the other artists mentioned are Rubens, Cezanne, and Munch.

The most shameful is the looting of a museum in Buenos Aires, almost certainly by the Junta that was keeping the country under a reign of terror and needed a source of money to pay for armaments.

The stories are told by interviews with both crooks and cops and reenactments of the crimes and the investigations that followed. Most of it is quite riveting, some merely interesting. But it certainly is worth seeing.

Drama TV series

Great Train Robbery of 1963 Dramatized

A-Great Train RobberyGREAT TRAIN ROBBERY  

No, the   Acorn Media 2-DVD release titled “The Great Train Robbery” is not the pioneering silent film of 1903 or the amusing Sean Connery film of 1979. Televised in 2013, this is the story of a once-famous 1963 train robbery in England. The train was carrying excess old bank notes from several banks along the way and stopped by a large band of men who took nearly all of the bank bags. The total, much to the surprise of even the thieves, came to over 2,000,000 pounds!

Part 1 is titled “A Robber’s Tale” and tells the story of how holdup man Bruce Reynolds (Luke Evans) organized and carried out the crime. Part 2 is titled “A Copper’s Tale” and tells the story of how Scotland Yard’s DCS Tommy Butler (Jim Broadbent) organized and carried out the capture of the gang. How much dramatic liberty was taken with the actual events is of no importance. This drama is pretty much predictable but so well acted and detailed that it makes superior viewing.

Anything more I might say would be a “spoiler” and so I will cut this short by giving the show a high recommendation. The 2 parts run about 90 minutes each, there are subtitles, and there are bonus interviews with members of both casts.



“Faust” from 1912

A-OP-Faust (Pathe)The Very First recording of “Faust” in French is Impressive

 Ardent collectors of opera on CD should visit the website of Marston Records. Ward Marston is considered the top person in the art of transferring very old recordings onto modern discs and his catalogue is filled with fascinating first—and often only—recorded versions of popular operas.

For example, the very first “Carmen” (1908) stars Emmy Destinn and is in German, as is the “Faust” (1908). “Carmen also appeared as the first recordings in French in 1911. And there is the only recording I know about of the French version of “Il Trovatore” (1912). The sound is ancient but thoroughly made as good as possible by Marston, the singing historic. And it is so good to hear French singers performing in French operas.

Then there are collections of famous singers such as Conchita Supervia, Feodor Chaliapin, Lotte Lehmann, and Rosa Ponselle. There are also discs such as “Three Tenors of the Opera Comique,” which offer even more variety.

There are plenty of non-operatic artists, but my specialty is opera and for me the Marston catalogue is a treasure trove of rare and even rarer recordings.

The rest of this report will concentrate on a French “Faust” recorded 1911-1912 and it will serve as a good example of what Marston has to offer.

It is 1912 and a French company named Pathé has issued a recording of Charles Gounod’s immensely popular opera “Faust.” It took up no less than 56 sides!  But now, this very “Faust” is available on 3 somewhat more convenient CD sides in a boxed set from Marston Records. And it is a stunner.

Ward Marston  describes in a well detailed booklet how Pathé made these recordings (in a most primitive way), a history of the opera “Faust,” and details about the singers heard on this recording. He did wonders with the sound, which is at times nearly as good as any early electric 78-rpm disc. The slightly noticeable surface noise only adds charm to what is essentially a time-trip to 17 years before electric recordings became possible.

Indeed, I was also amazed at how complete and well paced the performance is. Not only does it contain the Walpurgis Night scene  with all of the ballet music (omitted from many an early LP version) but actually includes Marguerite’s Act IV lament, which is even today seldom heard in the opera house. Valentine’s aria, which was added by Gounod at the request of an English baritone, is not included.

Not too surprisingly, while much of the singing is quite good, there is little dramatic tension, for example, in the duel between Faust and Valentine. The conductor is Francois Ruhlmann.

Andre Gresse makes a lively Mephistopheles, Leon Beyle a sympathetic Faust, and Jeanne Campredon a fragile Marguerite. More important is the fact that this recording is a valuable document of how French opera was sung early in the last century before rapid transit brought international casts to every opera house, thereby neatly killing anything of a national style. Lovers of Gounod’s masterpiece will want to hear this performance, as will operatic vocal coaches and their students.

As a wonderful filler for disc 3, Marston has included 13 other recordings of arias and ensembles, including Valentine’s solo, that give even more examples of French singing at that point in history.

Search for this and other operatic treasures from a bygone age.


The Story of Women and Power


Back in 1974, Masterpiece Theatre telecast a dramatization of the struggle in England for women’s suffrage titled “Shoulder to Shoulder.” Now Athena has a 3-part series that goes over the same material, but it starts centuries earlier. “The Story of Women and Power” is narrated, sometimes a little too passionately, by historian Amanda Vickery.

It is all quite fascinating and even the most devoted misogynist should sicken at the examples of how half the British population suffered under the male domination of husband, government, and church. For example, did you know “rule of thumb” refers to the law that kept husbands from beating their wives with a rod thicker than a thumb?

Actually the dramatization of 1974 was much more impressive, because the actions spoke for themselves. In this newer program, being told about it, no matter how bitterly, and seeing newspaper sketches of (say) women prisoners being force-fed is less personal. Notice that a film is about to be released about the British suffrage movement with Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst, which is doubtless the inspiration for the release of this 2015 documentary.

But the older series and “Women and Power” are– and the upcoming film doubtless will be–worth the watching.

Drama TV series

Foyle’s War Complete Saga

A-Foyles WarEntire “Foyle’s War” Series Now in One Collection

When the popular “Inspector Morse” series came to an end in 2000, ITV needed a new idea in police drama and came up with an good one: a detective fighting crime during World War II.  It was called “Foyle’s War” and was an instant hit.

 The show is helped immensely by the acting of Michael Kitchen as Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle and by the action being set in wartime Hastings, England. Now Acorn has released “Foyle’s War, the Complete Saga,” which includes all 31 episodes from Set 1 to Set 8.

Foyle wants nothing more than to be a combatant, but his civil work on the home front is too important. He is assigned a cute-as-they-come driver named Samantha Stewart (Honeysuckle Weeks), and the two deal with espionage, war profiteering, and old fashioned murder.

Some of the plots are directly linked to the war. The first one is about a rich man’s German wife with  family connections in the homeland who was never interred because her husband was rich. Others are straight crimes, mostly murders that could have fit in any time period; but here many of the characters are members are of the military.

Weeks as Samantha

The Sets 5 and 6 are not quite as successful, as they take place after the war, and Foyle’s rejoining with Samantha is somewhat forced and awkwardly developed at first. However, sets 7 and 8 are concerned with the New Enemy (every decade must have one), and the last episode of all ends with a stunner.

The producers tried to end the series in 2007, but public demand convinced them to continue. We are now assured that the latest episode, filmed in January 2015, is indeed the last. So I am all the more grateful to have a complete collection of this fine series.

As it is with John Nettles in “Midsomer Murders,” Kitchen’s portrayal of Foyle brings out all the character’s decency and determination to solve his cases in a decent way, although he really wants to do his bit in the armed forces. Likewise, Honeysuckle Weeks plays his driver, Samantha Stewart, as a capable and dependable assistant who mixes her driving skills with policing skills.

There are 29 discs, the last of which is an extended interview, with stereo in Sets 1-6 and surround sound in the rest. Only Sets 6-8 are subtitled. There are over 6 hours of bonus material in the form of behind-the-scenes features, interviews and other forms of production notes. A very helpful booklet is provided with notes and plot summaries.

Drama TV series

Miss Fisher 3

A-Miss Fischer 3Miss Fisher Sleuths Again for a Third Season

Meanwhile, back in post-World War I Australia, the sexy Miss Phryne (say fry-nee) Fisher (Essie Davis) is in her third series of “Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries” in a boxed set of three Acorn DVDs. There are eight 55-minute episodes, the main plots of each independent of the others while the subplots develop slowly.

For example, Phryne’s relationship with Detective Jack Robinson (Nathan Page) has reached the stage in which he is jealous every time he sees her speaking to a man, while she reciprocates with equal sarcasm should he speak to a woman. Her aide-de-camp, Dot Williams (Ashleigh Cummings), is now ready to marry her Constable Hugh Collins (Hugo Johnstone-Burt), who agrees to convert to Catholicism.

The new element is the appearance of Phryne’s father, Baron Henry Fisher (Pip Miller), a charming (for women only, it seems) cad, for whom Fisher has so little respect that she believes him to be a suspect in a murder case. He certainly gets on the viewer’s nerves as much as he does on his daughter’s.

The main plots involve murder at a magic show, a killing near a military base, two rival Italian restaurants, the death of street boys, a sanatorium for very rich “hysterical” women, murder and gambling at a fading hotel, a tennis tournament and rival players, and a threat to Baron Fisher’s life.

Unlike other shows, there is little emphasis on mutilated bodies or rotting corpses. The guillotine trick that goes wrong in the first episode, for instance, is not too gruesome, the severing of the head being seen only in a long shot. Likewise, the autopsy scenes show restraint and respect for the viewers.

The tone of this show varies from very serious to light-hearted, the latter due mostly to Essie Davis’ portrayal of  what one critic called “the female answer to James Bond, Indiana Jones or a combination of both.”  Like Bond, she has persons of the opposite sex for breakfast; like Jones, she takes great physical risks to solve her cases. And like the three women who co-stared with Patrick Macnee in “The Avengers”—especially Diana Rigg—she can serve as a role model for young women who question the male’s “superiority” in the social order.

Among the usual behind-the-scenes bonuses is a charming “Mr. Butler’s Drink of the Week,” in which Mr. Butler the butler (Richard Blye) gives a brief recipe for whatever drink seems to suit the plot of the episode that precedes it.

Drama TV series

Chasing Shadows

A-Chasing ShadowsNew Police Series Has Interesting Leads

   Here is an original police series! We have an officer with all the tact of a Doc Martin and the sensitivities of a Monk, DS Sean Stone, played with an utterly straight face by Reece Shearsmith. At a press conference designed to praise the police for catching a criminal, Stone criticizes them for not catching him sooner. Result: he is demoted to Missing Persons.

There he meets Ruth Hattersley (Alex Kingston), a woman who knows her job but cannot connect with the self-isolating Stone. He won’t even share his car with her, because he does his thinking best when alone. DI Prior (Noel Clarke) is given the unwelcome task of seeing that Stone sticks to professional standards; but much of the fun in this series comes from Stone’s being his own man.

This is the basic situation that serves as background to the two stories that make up “Chasing Shadows,” now available on an Acorn DVD.

This is not a comedy. The first two-part tale concerns a suicide website for teens; the second is about a serial killer whose victims are all mentally challenged. The humor of the Stone-Hattersley relationship is gently integrated into the plots. Giving Hattersley a slightly problematic son is part of the clichéd family relationships that have been introduced into so many police shows in past decades. However, not much time is spent on it at the expense of the mystery at hand.

Kingston is absolutely marvelous as the utterly believable Missing Persons investigator and is the perfect foil to Shearsmith’s unbending characterization of Stone. I can easily recommend this series. And thanks, Acorn, for the subtitles.

Drama Other than Shakespeare

Therese Raquin

A-Theresa RaquinZola Novel Vividly Dramatized in Vintage Miniseries 

   Just as—or maybe because—a dramatic adaptation of Emile Zola’s first successful novel “Therese Raquin” is opening on Broadway, Acorn has released on DVD the 1979 miniseries, seen back then on Masterpiece Theatre. This is the  depressing tale of a woman, Therese Raquin (Kate Nelligan) utterly bored with her childish and lifeless husband Camille (Kenneth Cranham), his overly doting mother (Mona Washbourne) with whom Therese runs a small shop, and the same set of friends who gather every week at the Raquins to play dominoes.

One can really feel for Therese, at least at first! When Camille’s friend Laurent (Brian Cox) visits, there is immediate sexual attraction between him and Therese; and a long affair begins (with scenes that were quite shocking for American television back then). It is notable that Zola wanted to show “the brute” in people; and Nelligan’s imitating a cat in bed dramatizes perfectly Zola’s concept.

There is an unforgettable scene at the Morgue, where the naked bodies of recent victims are laid out on tables for the public to identify or simply gawk at. People as brutes and then as meat. Pure Zola.

Emile Zola at an older age

The killing of the husband is a bungled affair and the rest of the drama shows the disintegration of the lovers’ relationship. (I can surely reveal this much, since it is inevitable.) The acting is what makes this a remarkable dramatic offering. Here I must mention Alan Rickman in a secondary role as an artist friend of Laurent.

The picture shows its age, especially during dark scenes, and the subtitles are most welcome. Each of the three episodes runs 51 minutes.

Drama TV series

George Gently 7, Vera 5

A Comparison of Two British Police Series

A-Gently 7What with British—and now Australian, with some Canadian and a dash of New Zealand—police series being so popular and seemingly endless, original plots are hard to find. Therefore so much depends on the lead sleuths and their closest assistants. It all harkens back to Holmes and Watson, who have re-emerged on television as the Detective Chief Inspector and the Detective Sergeant. Take for example two of the many British series released here by Acorn Media.

George Gently, Series 7   DCI George Gently (Martin Shaw) has changed in two ways. He is much more physical with recalcitrant suspects and he finds he is in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. In one episode, he actually covers up evidence to protect… Well, see for yourself.

Just at the point where his assistant DS John Bacchus, despite his deep rooted prejudices against ethnic groups, women police, and the rich, is going to be promoted to Inspector, he takes up with the wife of a police officer, who is known for treating rape cases with disdain for the victims. At the same time, WPC Rachel Coles (Lisa McGrillis) has to keep up an endless battle with the sexist Bacchus. With all this, the team manages to solve the four crimes of 93-minutes each (with subtitles) that make up “George Gently, Series 7.”

The stories are not particularly original—again, how many new plots can writers come up with in this genre?— but the characterizations and the period ambience (the last days of the 1960s) carry the day.

A-Vera 5 Vera, Set 5  “Vera” stars Brenda Blethyn as DCI Vera Stanhope, a character not unlike George Gently. She is on in years, has a bit of heart trouble (mentioned in an earlier series), and regrets the loss of her looks. (Blethyn was a sexy Joan of Arc in the BBC “Henry VI, Part 1” in 1983.) The setting is present day Northumberland and she has a lovely regional accent and calls everybody “love” or “pet.”

In this 5th series, she is bothered by the bad jokes and mistakes made by her assistant DS Aiden Healy (Kenny Doughty). As a rule, she is more ably assisted by DC Bethany Whelan (Cush Jumbo) and the older DC Kenny Lockhart (Jon Morrison).

The stories would be comfortable in just about any other police series, but Blethyn gives the character some depth and her problems do not take time from the main plot. Again, it is the main character that maintains interest, while the assistant character is not as interesting as George Gently’s Bacchus.

This set includes four episodes of 93 minutes each, with subtitles.