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Laurent Cantet’s
The Class
Blu-Ray

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The winner of the Palm d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and the Opening Night selection at last year’s New York Film Festival, Laurent Cantet’s Oscar nominated film, The Class, is now available on Blu-Ray.

With an intense, docu-style narrative and a deliberately claustrophobic setting, Laurent and co-writer and star François Bégaudeau (who also wrote the novel the film is based on) and Robin Campillo, have created a fascinating microcosmic meditation on social justice and how one’s cultural and class background play into how much power that individual is allowed in any given society. In this case the ‘society’ happens to be a classroom.

The Class takes place entirely in a school or on the school premises, but mostly in François’s junior high school class. The movie chronicles one school year in the life of a teacher and his twenty-five students—although many get short-shrift in the script to make way for the louder, more colorful characters.

Bégaudeau plays the autobiographical role of the teacher who seemingly cares a great deal about his students but whose low self-esteem and abundant pride get in the way when it matters most. It’s a sharp and impressive performance with the real/cinema lines blurring in a mesmerizing manner.

The 2:35:1 anamorphic transfer has a documentary look and feel to it and that realistic presentation is enhanced on Blu-Ray.

The French audio (also offered in English and Spanish) can get a bit frustrating at times with so many students speaking simultaneously and only one or two being translated via subtitles, but the sound itself if good.

The Class Blu-Ray edition offers some wonderful extras including a 41-minute Making-Of feature that boasts fascinating comments from Cantet and Begaudeau intercut with footage of the cast doing improv and helping to workshop the screenplay. The director and screenwriter also provide audio/video commentary. Two other featurettes (a 30-minute Actors Workshop and a 12 minute Actors Self-Portrait) as well as the trailer round out the goodies.

The Class asks urgent questions; questions about democracy and the fear of nonconformity—universal questions that resonates intensely here in America.



Stephan Elliott’s
Easy Virtue
Blu-Ray

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Stephan Elliott, the imaginative director of the 1994 cult classic The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert has made a wickedly refreshing and splendid new film of Noel Coward’s 1924 play that looks striking on Blu-Ray!

Coward was only twenty-three when he wrote Easy Virtue and there has only been one screen adaptation—by Alfred Hitchcock in 1928--a silent version meaning all the wonderful and witty repartee’ became moot on the big screen.
Elliott, with the help of co- writer Sheridan Jobbins, has adapted the play quite marvelously, keeping true to Coward’s spirit, but also giving the film a modern feel. He’s even taken a few contemporary songs and, anachronistically, rerecorded them to evoke the 1920s. Like Baz Lurhmann, Elliott is an edgy and original showman who likes to take risks with his images and his soundtrack. Here they pay off smashingly.

Easy Virtue is the story of the end of an era—and in Coward’s mind, good riddance to it! The target: the upper class British landowners with their Victorian judgmental morals and surface smiles holding steadfastly to their traditions while raising a generation of children who could not wait to hop into the burgeoning jazz age where a more egocentric notion of living was beginning to dominate.
The Whittaker family embodies this dichotomy to perfection.

The matriarch, played brilliantly by Kristin Scott Thomas, is a woman desperate to hold onto to her family and their values—as well as the land that has been her family for seven generations. In the hands of a lesser actress this could have easily been a villainous campy bitch that we laughed at and hated. The genius of Scott Thomas’ performance is that we actually sympathize with her and sometimes, actually root for her—something Coward may not have intended but the nuance works so well.

Colin Firth masterfully portrays Mr. Whittaker, a man whose soul died during the war and, consequently, has--in Firth’s words--“gone slightly feral.” The actor has a particularly poignant scene where he describes his war experience.
Their only son, John (played nicely by Ben Barnes who, in another era, could have been a matinee idol with the likes of Tyrone Power and Errol Flynn) has returned home and brought with him his new, and completely inappropriately free-spirited American wife, played by the gorgeous Jessica Biel. Let the verbal sparks begin!
Biel is problematic. A Winslet or Blanchett (with perfect American accents) could have brought the strong sense-of-self necessary to pull off this difficult and challenging role. And to Biel’s credit she does succeed occasionally--especially in her endscene. But she is out of her depth with the likes of Firth and Scott Thomas.

The visuals via 2:35:1 aspect ratio are vividly lavish in keeping with the sumptuous film. The Blu-Ray shows off the gorgeous English countryside as well as the magnificent costumes and art direction.

The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 sound boasts good depth but seems to be recorded at a lower volume. I cranked it all the way up on my receiver and it still didn’t seem loud enough.

The Extras, alas, aren’t terribly impressive. There is no Making-Of featurettes so we are left with a few innocuous deleted scenes (making Biel seem even worse an actress than in the film), a silly blooper reel and a too-short New York Premiere coverage feature—all totalling less than 20 minutes. The director/writer commentary, however, is very interesting with director Elliott chatting up a storm about all aspects of the film.

Easy Virtue is a hilarious and satiric comment on a particularly fascinating time that resonates today. Elliott’s frenetic and bedazzling directorial style will enchant and envelop you.



Rowan Woods'
Fragments
DVD

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

It would be easy and unfair to lump Fragments with the Crash copycat films out there.While it does feature a starry cast in a vignetty narrative that tries its best to comment on our time, Fragments is a character study of damaged people who must go on living after experiencing a devastating incident together.

Director Rowan Woods does not manipulate his audience, he simply allows his characters to deal with the tragedy in their own organic, non-contrived way.

It’s early morning in an LA diner and shots soon fire. The non-linear narrative soon helps put the ‘fragments’ of the story together as the characters try and put the ‘fragments’ of their shattered lives back together. Trust me, the film is much better than that sentence made it sound and any in-depth mention of the plot would ruin the pleasure of watching the film unfold.

The dynamic ensemble include the highly underrated Kate Beckinsale, Guy Pearce, Jean Tripplehorn, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson (proving she has potential beyond musicals) and Dakota Fanning, less annoying than usual.

The DVD video transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen) looks good. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is quite effective.

The only extra is a director audio commentary that is actually quite good as it details the process and his choices pretty thoroughly.

Fragments is absorbing and provocative filmmaking that is definitely worth a look.


John Cassavetes’
Husbands
DVD

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

John Cassavetes was the father of the independent film movement. In the 1960s he dared to grab a camera and enlist some amazing actors to experiment both with the medium and with the art of film acting, resulting in original and audacious works that would influence cinema artists for years to come.

Cassavetes made some of the seminal films of the 60s and 70s including Faces, A Woman Under the Influence, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Opening Night. His oeuvre, however, was not very commercial. This may account for the fact that his 1970 classic, Husbands, has never been released on DVD…until now.

Tagged as ‘a comedy about life death and freedom,’ Husbands continued the Cassavetes trend of improvisational and actor-friendly explorations, with plot and audience expectations taking a backseat while the auteur and actors went in search for emotional truth.

Husbands follows three middle-aged married friends on a journey of mourning when their fourth wheel dies. The rest of the film is a series of sometimes lengthy vignettes where the guys try to come to terms with aspects of their lives and themselves.

Cassavetes stars with two of staples from his stable: Peter Falk and Ben Gazzara. All three deliver powerhouse performances with Gazzara giving a bravura portrayal as a man miserable in his own skin.

Watching these titans simply “act” is the greatest treat and here we are able to enjoy the original 139 minute cut of the film--apparently the movie was butchered down by 20 minutes after the studio put pressure on Cassavetes. (Gazzara, in an interview on the disc, stated that his favorite cut of the film ran 4 and a half hours!!!)

Like many American directors that thrived in the 70s (Altman, Ashby) Cassavetes made truly personal films that seemed to expose elements of his own psyche. Husbands is a terrific addition to his canon and is a must see for anyone who cares about American cinema.

Transfer-wise, the film looks wonderful with that seventies grainy feel. The sound is sometimes garbled and unintelligible but that’s the price we must pay for overlapping dialogue—I wouldn’t have it any other way!

A wonderful documentary features interviews with Gazzara, producer Al Ruban and cinematographer Victor Kemper where these men discuss the Cassavetes’ “style” and the discovery process. All three seem to concur that Cassavetes made his films ‘to please himself, not anyone else.’

Audio commentary by biographer Marshall Fine is incredibly insightful. Cassavetes would often take film acting roles to earn enough money so he could continue making the films he wanted to make. As actor and writer/director, he remains one of the most fascinating figures in American film.


 


Steve Shill’s
Obsessed

Blu-Ray

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Borrowing…okay STEALING outright from 1987’s Fatal Attraction, Steve Shill’s messy and predictable film Obsessed does do one thing very well: it delivers a riveting final cat fight between the two lady leads that is ridiculously satisfying and the height of camp.

The basic paint-by-numbers plot has Lisa (Ali Larter in the film’s best performance) trying to seduce duller-than-dirt Derek (Idris Elba) from his feisty wife Sharon (her highness Beyonce Knowles). Lisa goes cuckoo when she doesn’t get what she wants. Sharon tosses Derek out when she thinks he’s cheating. Sound all too familiar?

I have never been a big fan of Fatal Attraction, mostly because of the fact that director Adrian Lyne did not have the courage of his own artistry and, after preview audiences were left ungratified by the ending, he assembled the cast and filmed the now classic (and I think pathetic) scene where Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) is gruesomely shot dead in the bathtub. Viewers wanted her blood and it’s what they got. The Michael Douglas character, however, got away with barely a slap on the wrist. Oh, the poor rabbit! In changing his film to please the masses, Lyne took a fascinating female character and turned her into a total psycho with no real motivation.

Director Shill and screenwriter David Loughery (who says in one of the featurettes that the idea for Obsessed came from a studio head) make the character of Lisa a psycho right from the get-go. There are no gray areas, she’s just nuts and her motivations do not really matter. Obsessed also differs from Fatal Trash in the key plot twist where the male lead does NOT actually have an affair, he (wholly unbelievably) spurns Lisa’s advances.

This is a great film to watch with some booze handy. It’s mediocre but terrific fun. And watching Beyonce bitch-out on Larter is just worth the sit! Larter has a flirty/crazybitch blast and it shows. Beyonce has proven her acting mettle in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records, so here she can simply have a diva-blast—and she does!

Visually, the film is a mixed bag. Some scenes look better than others on this Blu-Ray edition—the daylight and office shots are aces while the night scenes are a bit murky. The aspect ratio is 2.40.

The audio (Dolby TrueHD 5.1) is fantastic, especially in the final take-no-prisoners showdown.

There are three slight extras that are more promo than anything else: Playing Nicely together (the 15 min. making-of); Dressed to Kill (a 9 min costime short) and Girl Fight (the 11 min battle breakdown).

I did not dislike this film as much as I should have. Perhaps it was the vino.



 


 


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