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Marc Webb’s
(500) Days of Summer
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I used to watch 3rd Rock From the Sun religiously. The “kid” on the show was definitely engaging. One of the first films I remember seeing him in was Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It. A few years after 3rd Rock went off the air (and after seeing him play a rabid Mormon in Latter Days) I was blown away by his remarkable performance in Gregg Araki’s controversial gem Mysterious Skin. Who knew? The “kid,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt, had real talent and was definitely not a kid anymore. (500) Days of Summer should prove this to the rest of the world.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a writer of greeting cards who once had dreams of being an architect. The wonderful Zooey Deschanel is Summer Finn, a sometimes flighty but always endearing co-worker.

The film has no real plot to speak of and yet it is always compelling. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have fashioned a fantastically clever, genre-blasting, non-linear screenplay that manages to give us just enough of the relationship so we care but not go overboard. I was reminded a bit of Peter and Vandy, which also opened in 2009 and told its story without the necessity of chronology.

First time director, Marc Webb has made a rich and delightful cinematic treat. It’s the anti-romantic comedy in many ways. It’s bittersweet in tone but never becomes maudlin--it’s almost celebratory actually—which is odd because it’s about two people who aren’t meant to be together. There’s no bullshit Knocked Up ending here either. The film is true to it’s unique self, banging it’s own wacky drum with many different storytelling devices including: the inspired lunacy of a musical number; homage European film moments as well as a split screen expectations vs. reality segment that is fascinating to watch. And rewatch.

One of the legion of lovely things about this film is that, although it’s told from the male perspective, there is always due respect given to the female.

The visuals pop on blu-ray. Los Angeles and its architecture are lovingly photographed by Eric Steelberg and look great on BR. The 2.35:1 AVC transfer rocks with impressive colors and textures.

The film relies heavy on dialogue and the DTS HD Master Audio track is perfectly crisp and clear.

A host of Special Features includes an enjoyable Commentary Track featuring Webb, Weber, Neustadter and Gordon-Levitt. The foursome seem to be having a great time and, consequently, we do as well.

The Making-of docu is called Not a Love Story and features interviews with all the main players, specifically director Webb taking us through the filmmaking process. At 29 minutes it’s a good and solid piece.

More features include: 14-minutes of very funny Deleted Scenes; Summer at Sundance is a 13-minute vid-footage shot docu about the importance of the Sundance Film Festival to the film; Conversations with Zooey and Joseph is just that, 12 minutes of their musings on the making of the film and working together; Filmmaking Specials is a series of promos for the film done by Fox Movie Channel; Audition Tapes, Storyboard Sequences; The Bank Dance, a loony short with both stars and, my personal favorite: Mean Cinemash: Sid and Nancy, a segment where Zooey and Joseph play Sid and Nancy, respectively. It is hilarious!

Disc Two contains a Digital Copy of the film.

This is a splendid Blu-Ray to add to the collection since you will want to revisit the magic every once in a while.


 

Kathryn Bigelow’s
The Hurt Locker
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

If war is a drug can tripping on war lead to a soldier’s salvation or his damnation? This is one of the many relevant questions asked in The Hurt Locker, an incredible journey into an area of war that few have ever dared to investigate.

Director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal know how to create and sustain suspense (I had nervous stomach throughout most of the movie). The Iraq war is the backdrop for an extraordinary story about just how far guys are willing to go to get their thrill fix. Bigelow has explored men and their compulsive rush-habits in Point Break and Strange Days. And while both those films are seriously underrated, nothing she helmed in the past would have prepared us for The Hurt Locker, which is one of the finest, most audacious films of 2009 and a perfect companion piece to HBO’s extraordinary miniseries Generation Kill.

Boal accompanied a bomb squad into Bagdad in 2004 and his personal accounts make for quite a riveting and startling screenplay.

What makes The Hurt Locker audacious? Firstly, Bigelow has the balls (there’s irony) to meticulously examine how risking one’s life may very well be the ultimate adrenaline high—especially when you’re a bomb-dismantling and diffusing soldier who never felt at home in the real world. Once he’s introduced to the exciting, risky and senselessly reckless world of destruction and mayhem known as war how can he ever return to the mundaneness of ordinary daily life in Anytown, USA?

Bigelow gets that these guys come home from duty having seen and done inexplicably terrible and heinous things—in between acts of astonishing bravery—so how could they possibly be expected to truly assimilate back into regular society? Buy cereal? Bring up a child? Is it no wonder that so many returning soldiers turn to drink, drugs and violence? They need to get their thrill somewhere. It’s the monsters we create sending them there—wherever the there happens to be. It’s what war creates.

And in the case of The Hurt Locker we see life through the eyes of dare devil Staff Sgt. James, played by Jeremy Renner in a star making performance of such complexity and intensity that it easily ranks as one of the best of the year. James probably never felt quite at home in his home or hometown and his duty in Iraq gives him the power over life and death. His job is to behave recklessly (although he takes this to an extreme) and if he doesn’t die, he actually saves the day. What more could a boy who lives off adrenaline want? This war for him is the greatest drug of all. To paraphrase what one fellow soldier says to Sgt. James, he isn’t very good with people but he’s a great warrior!

Bigelow’s is the thinking-man’s action director (irony?). She is deft at telling her story in enthralling cinematic style (with some homoerotic horseplay filmed in the way only a woman can perceptively view male camaraderie) while getting the best performances from her actors. The supporting cast is terrific and include: Anthony Mackie; Brian Geraghty; Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes.

I’m happy to report that nothing is lost on the small screen, especially in the Blu-Ray edition. The visuals have been perfectly preserved in its Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1 transfer, looking magnificent on HDTV.

And the 5.1 Dolby Digital sound is sharp and clear when it needs to be. Background noise is so real I kept jerk-turning wondering what was going on behind me.

The disc has some fab bonus features including a very informative audio commentary with Bigelow and Boal. It’s a must listen for cinephiles especially but it also gives good insight into filmmaking and the war in Iraq. In addition, an image gallery is presented with the option to play a fascinating 23-minute London Q&A in the background. Both tell great stories about the genesis of the project and how the script and evolution of the picture unfolded.

Finally there’s a 12-minute Behind the Scenes featurettes where the addiction to combat is further explored and the actors are interviewed. My only complaint here is that it is far too short. Surely such an important film deserves a good one-hour documentary!

The Hurt Locker is exhilarating filmmaking; a visceral cinematic thrill that transfers well to the smaller screen (especially on Blu-Ray). It’s also one of the most frightening and intelligent “war” films of our time.




James Gandolfini in In the Loop

Armando Iannucci’s
In the Loop
BLU-RAY


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella


In the Loop is one of 2009’s indie gems and perfectly captures the true redundancy of political satire. It’s a bold, abrasive comedy, courtesy of the UK, that cleverly sends up the maneuverings and machinations of the leaders of the two most powerful nations on the planet (or the two nations that think they have the most power anyway…)

The film grew out of the BBC series The Thick of It and is deftly written by director Armando Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche, with additional dialogue by Ian Martin.

Iannucci masterfully combines what is side-splittingly funny with jaw-dropping, cynical truths.

The lunatic narrative (which warrants repeat viewings to totally appreciate and savor) explodes when Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development, Simon Foster (a perfectly befuddled and dundercloddish Tom Hollander), has the audacity to suggest that war in the Middle East is “unforeseeable.” This tears the lid off a can of political worms that slithers crazy and pisses many folks in the warmongering government off. Foster attempts to backpedal and spin his gaffe at a press conference declaring, “Britain must be ready to climb the mountains of conflict.” Gleefully, the Americans enter the picture and the Strangelovian plot festers and kicks into zany gear.

The acting is sensational with a cast of seasoned pros that complement one another. James Gandolfini is particularly hilarious as an off-kilter US General. Paul Higgins and Steve Coogan do their zany part to bring mayhem to the canvas. But the film belongs to Peter Capaldi (so good in Torchwood: Children of Earth). As spin-doctor extraordinaire, Malcolm Tucker, Capaldi gives a relentlessly furious performance so enjoyable it should be criminal! His nasty and searing line deliveries are some of the funniest movie moments I have seen in eons. He deserves an Oscar, or at the very least, a nomination!

On Blu-Ray, the visuals pop arrestingly with office beiges, oranges and browns vibrantly featured. Shot digitally, the 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer has strong resolution.

The 5.1 soundtrack mix is a cacophony of overlapping dialogue and works dynamically. You may find yourself turning on the subtitles but it won’t be because of problematic sound, it will be to understand the clever and cutting Brit-speak throughout.

The Extras include a TV spot, theatrical trailer and a 3-minute Behind the Scenes teaser from IFC.

The pièce de résistance on the disc is the 27-minutes of hilarious deleted scenes. Cut together like a mini-film, the irreverent moments add to the insane characterizations. If you love this film as much as I do, these excised moments will be sheer bliss.

In the Loop is reminiscent of Wag the Dog and Dr. Strangelove, but with a very modern edge. And like those gems, t’s infectious. The more I see it, the more I want to see it again.




HBO’s
Into the Storm
DVD


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Winston Churchill was a larger-than-life figure and it would be easy for an actor to fall into impersonation and end up with a caricature of the great leader. The wonder of Brendan Gleeson is that he finds the humanity in Churchill while capturing his famous mannerisms, unique voice and eloquent way of speaking.

Into the Storm chronicles Churchill’s years as Prime Minister of Great Britain. HBO’s previous telefilm, The Gathering Storm, showed us his life right up to the war. That film starred the amazing Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave. (A 1974 version boasted Richard Burton in as scenery chewing portrait).

Churchill became Prime Minister the same day Hitler invaded the Low Countries and that intense “destiny” pervades the movie. We become privy to his fast and furious decisions that would lead the Allies to victory over Germany; his relief when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor; his machinations as he meets with Roosevelt and Stalin and his sometimes strained, always respectful relationship with his wife Clementine (a charmingly proper and headstrong Janet McTeer).

A sad tone pervades the movie and, in the end, before the end of the war in the Pacific, the British labor party decides they no longer need him. He’s seen as a warmonger, having no place in peacetime. Gleeson’s conveyance of disappointment is palpable.

Writer Hugh Whitemore relies a great deal on Churchill’s speeches, but when the material is that rich, why the hell wouldn’t he? Churchill understood the tremendous power of words and through his words, the titanic man is revealed. A man who loved and believed in his country. A man responsible for taking the correct steps to save the western world from Nazism.

Into the Storm boasts great production values and Thaddius O’Sullivan’s direction is first rate.

The enhanced 1.78:1 transfer is wonderful showing off the film’s lush photography. The 5.1 surround track is quiet but erupts magnificently during an airfield scene.

The Bonus features are few. A commentary track with producer Frank Doelger and writer Hugh Whitemore is interesting and informative. The seven minute featurettes is incredibly disappointing in it’s brevity but it’s fun to hear Gleeson speak in his Irish brogue after we’ve heard his distinct Churchillian accent in the film.



 



Ben Stiller and Amy Adams in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Shawn Levy's
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Right up front I have to admit never having any desire to see Night at the Museum. Not really a Ben Stiller fan here. So when I heard director Shawn Levy and screenwriters Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon were reuniting with Stiller for another go around—probably because of the massive box office numbers of the original—I was less than thrilled. Oh, but then I read two splendiferous words that actually got me excited about the sequel: Amy Adams. More—much more—about her later.

Two years have passed and Larry Daley (Stiller) is no longer a museum guard. He now runs his own company manufacturing his inventions. Upon returning to visit his past place of employment, he discovers the Museum of Natural History is about to replace the exhibits (which came alive in the previous film) with interactive holograms. Most of the displays are moving to the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. There’s more plot about a monkey stealing a tablet that brings to life the figures, but the bottom line is that Daley must rush to DC to save the day.

Besides Stiller, Owen Wilson and an always-hilarious Ricky Gervais, some of the old crew is back too: Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, Steve Coogan as Octavius and Patrick Gallagher as Attila the Hun. New cast members include: Amelia Earhart (Adams), Ivan the Terrible (Christopher Guest), Al Capone (Jon Bernthal), Napoleon (Alain Chabat), General Custer (Bill Hader), and Ahkmenrah's evil older brother Kahmunrah (Hank Azaria).

I was actually pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable the film is. It’s definitely aimed towards children and the action-adventure-y crowd but it contains an important message about the dangers inherent in allowing technology to engulf our lives (which it is quickly doing). The movie also acts a great teaching tool for kids to learn about history.

But for me the true joy in watching this film has everything to do with Amy Adams. She’s the film’s pulse. With vintage lines like, “Why this is one humdinger of a hootenanny,” Adams makes Earhart delightful, mischievous and charming. If only Hilary Swank had as much spunk, vitality and vivacity in the mega-disappointment Amelia! Adams is also one of the few characters who does not dip into an anachronistic portrayal. Watching the others spew modern vernacular becomes a bit annoying—especially Azaria whose lisp is downright dumb.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment offers Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian in a 3-disc wonderful package (a BD-50 Blu-ray disc, the standard definition and a digital copy) The main menu boasts many of the characters from the film.

The image is a splendid 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1). The transfer is spectacular highlighting all that is grand about hi-def. And if the look is terrific, the DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack equals it giving great acoustics and dynamite range.

The disc offers over two hours of fun special features.

First we have two audio commentaries. Levy gives us a competent director’s point-of-view talk while, on the second track Garant and Lennon entertain us with schtick.

The Making-Of piece, '‘Curators of Comedy: Behind the Scenes of Night at the Museum 2" is a 27-minute docu with standard interviews with cast and crew. “Show Me the Monkey” is a collection of 3 featurettes about…monkeys. A mercifully brief “bonus” involves Azaria finding the best voice for Kahmunrah (bad choice I say). The most bizarre and hilarious feature involves the Jonas Brothers in “Cherub Bootcamp” where Levy puts them through the ringer trying to get them to be more cherubic!

Twelve minutes of decent deleted scenes, a gag reel and the trailer round out the goodies.

And exclusive to the BD are a few interactive treats like ‘Scavenger Hunt Mode, a neat trivia track;’ ‘Directing 201’ which takes you through a day in the life of Shawn Levy; a Behind-the-Scenes look at the American Museum of Natural History and a host more including 15 minutes of additional deleted scenes.

It’s a packed package.

“Great Gatsby!” What are you waiting for? Pick up the Blu-Ray. For Amy Adams. For history. For 105 minutes of fun!



HBO’s
Rome: The Complete Series
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

To put it bluntly, HBO’s mammoth undertaking, Rome, proves one of the most satisfying and least satisfying of all their endeavors—and I am a huge fan of the network and the bold and original programming it produces.

Season One is an absolutely brilliant—it’s a gorgeously crafted, compelling first-class work. Season Two is a disappointment. It feels rushed (it was) and, too often, loses its focus. Somewhere along the line the powers-that-be decided the series should depict less of the riveting political intrigue and, instead, focus on the common man; the annoying and ridiculous Titus Pullo (a boorish Ray Stevenson) and the impossibly moral Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd, splendid throughout)--basically turning the show into a modern action/adventure film instead of the fascinating and historic epic it was in Season One. Add the fact that the show ended (allegedly because it was too expensive to produce) before it even scratched the surface of the time of the Emperors and you leave this viewer baffled and feeling unsatisfied. You can fill in some blanks by watching the extraordinary British miniseries I, Claudius and the 1963 film, Cleopatra.

Rome introduces us to Julius Caesar and delves into the class warfare and corruption of the time. It also lays the groundwork for the rise of Octavian who becomes Augustus, the very first Emperor of Rome. As with any work of historical fiction, liberties are taken, but why grouse about that.

Filmed on location in Italy, the attention to detail of the production design and costumes are truly astounding and the cinematography is rich, lush and mesmerizing.

The wonderful, mostly British, ensemble include: Ciarán Hinds, magnificent as Caesar; sexy James Purefoy as Mark Antony; Max Pirkis and Simon Woods who share Octavian duties and a trio of amazing actresses Polly Walker, Kerry Condon and Lindsay Duncan who play Atia, Octavia and Servilla, respectively.

The ten dual-layered, 50GB Blu-Ray discs are presented in the original 1.78:1 aspect ratio in full 1080p and is AVC MPEG-4 encoded. The images are significantly better than the DVD release of Season One with vibrant colors and characters almost popping off the HDTV.

The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix is clear and sharp.

The Extras are bountiful beginning with the packaging: 28 pages of production stills, episode synopses, descriptions, etc. There are interactive features boasting character bios and historical trivia. Thirteen of the episodes have running commentaries.

Over three hours of special features include a slew of mini-documentaries (to be found throughout the discs), most of which run 24 minutes or less. These featurettes are entertaining, informative and just plain fun.

And Season Two isn’t terrible it’s just not up to par with Season One. I would suggest watching the wonderful first season and then fast-forwarding past most of the Pullo silliness in the second season and simply enjoying the moments that matter most; the moments that show how Rome became the longest reigning empire to date.



James Mottern’s
Trucker
DVD

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

After I saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, I remember thinking: “who is Michelle Monaghan and where can I get more of her?”

The best thing about James Mottern’s feature debut, Trucker, is that it provides audiences with plenty of Monaghan and gives her a meaty role where she can show off her impressive range.

Diane Ford (Monaghan) is an independent truck driver who indulges in that occasional one-night stand. She has no time for commitments or real connections of any sort so when her eleven-year old son is suddenly thrust upon her (after a ten year separation) her life is tossed into a tailspin.

Like George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air, Diane would literally rather keep moving about than have to stop and think about her life and her choices. Both characters prefer detaching personally as well as sexually. Now forced to be a mother to Peter (an impressive Jimmy Bennett), Diane must also come to certain realizations about herself.

While no new ground is broken in Trucker, Mottern’s script is so sweet and charming that it doesn’t matter much. The film could have used a few more dashes of intrigue and the story could have been developed further but Monaghan makes it all worthwhile as she slowly tears away at Diane’s fortress-like shell and allows herself to care, consequently the audience warms to Diane and is able to understand her.

The steely yet vulnerable Monaghan reminded me of a young Kathleen Turner blended with a young Lauren Bacall with a dash of Kristen Johnston. And although she calls to mind the singular women cited above, she’s a remarkable artist in her own right. In a less crowded field, Monaghan would be looking at an Oscar nomination.

On DVD, the 2:39:1 anamorphic aspect ratio transfer is excellent, enhancing Lawrence Sher’s rich camerawork. The 5.1 stereo surround sound is pretty clear.

The too-few bonus features include the theatrical trailer and a set of slide shows that feature Monaghan and the cast in candid and still photos. The lengthier one (3 minutes) has Scott Eversoll’s lovely vocal of “Back There in My Mind” playing on the soundtrack.

Trucker is good indy cinema and it should have a nice afterlife on DVD.



 


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