(500) Days of Summer
Reviewed by Frank J.
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
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
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.
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
Disc Two contains a Digital Copy of
This is a splendid Blu-Ray to
add to the collection since you will want to revisit the
magic every once in a while.
The Hurt Locker
Reviewed by Frank J.
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
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
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
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
In the Loop
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
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
The Extras include a TV spot, theatrical
trailer and a 3-minute Behind the Scenes teaser
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
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
Into the Storm
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
Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian
Reviewed by Frank J.
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
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
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!
Rome: The Complete Series
Reviewed by Frank J.
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
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
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.
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
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
Trucker is good indy cinema
and it should have a nice afterlife on DVD.