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HBO Mini-Series
Generation Kill

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Paragraph 5: M*A*S*H should be in italics

The astonishing HBO mini-series Generation Kill, scored eleven Emmy nominations this year—and rightly so. It’s just a damn shame that the tremendously talented ensemble was completely overlooked.

HBO, in it’s pre-show introduction, refers to itself as “groundbreaking,” and Generation Kill is a perfect example of why they have a right to continue to do so.

The special Blu-ray edition is a remarkable example of what happens when a killer-talented creative team get together and decide they are going to tell a story and tell it truthfully.

The seven-part series is based on Rolling Stone writer Evan Wright’s book that chronicled his adventures with the First Reconnaissance Battalion of the US Marine Corp during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Created by The Wire team of David Simon and Ed Burns, GenKill is a fearless, no-bullshit, show-it-all depiction of the folly of war as well as the folly of our actions when incompetent military leaders are in charge. It is also a great example of how hubristic we’ve become as a country. And for war-mongering viewers, it can also be a load of fun, since they will probably miss the message anyway!

The viewer follows the ill-prepared Marines from pre-invasion through their entering Bagdad. The Robert Altman-esque tapestry-filmmaking approach allows us to get to know a number of the guys, although repeated viewing help establish who is whom—I got lost a few times myself. And there’s a major tip of the hat to Altman in the finale, where a football game is played, like the ending of Altman’s genius anti-war satire M*A*S*H in 1970, made during the Vietnam conflict.

Generation Kill is not your typical war saga and, along with Kathyrn Bigelow's new film The Hurt Locker, represents a new generation of war depiction—one that pulls no punches and isn’t afraid to assault our senses as well as challenge the way we are used to viewing such stories.

The two main protagonists are also the two most outstanding performances (and both deserved Emmy recognition).

Sergeant Brad “Iceman” Colbert is masterfully played by True Blood vampire Alexander Skarsgard (yes, Stellan’s son). Brad is the conscience of the piece, a well-educated, witty wordsmith. Skarsgard brilliantly captures Brad’s intelligence, borderline-arrogance and impatience with the ineptitude around him.
Brad: “People who can’t kill will always be subject to those who can.”

His sidekick, Corporal Ray Person, a hilarious yet wise, white trash fuck-up is played, with great panache, by James Ranson (The Wire). Cynical as he is loyal, Ray has the funniest and sharpest dialogue. Ray: “They think we’re cool cause we’re good at blowing shit up.”

Lee Tergesen (so good in Oz) seamlessly embodies author Wright’s curiosities and fears. Stark Sands also stands out as a smart Lieutenant drowning in a sea of stupid.

Among the many highlights are: the constant sing-a-longs to ditties such as “Lovin’ You” and “King of the Road;” the self-awareness of just how homoerotic all these hot and horny Marines are as well as the no-holds-barred recon action sequences-including a nail-biting scene where our boys must cross a bridge.

Oh, and, the final 10 minutes is simply television at its best.

The Blu-ray discs really enhance the impressive and arresting visuals making it a captivating experience. The video is 1.78:1 for 1080p HD.

The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix truly makes your feel like you’re in a HumVee and the sound of gunfire has never felt so bloody real!

The oodles of terrific special features include: audio commentary on six of the seven installments; three fascinating and lengthy Making-of featurettes (the best involves a conversation with six of the Marines featured in the book) and a Basic Training pop-up tool new to the Blu-ray edition that is very helpful and instructive.

Generation Kill pushes the boundaries of what television can do. Kudos to HBO for celebrating original and exciting programming.

Drew Barrymore in HBO's Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The story of Big Edie and Little Edith Beale (cousins of Jackie O—nee Bouvier) continues to fascinate audiences. Since the original groundbreaking documentary, directed by the Maysles, was released in 1975 there have been countless books, a follow-up docu as well as a Broadway musical! The saga of the two women has gone from camp to cult to classic. Now HBO has jumped on board and produced a riveting and masterfully acted film now available on DVD.

The documentary Grey Gardens is a bit like a trainwreck, you cannot stop watching no matter how disturbing, disquieting and painfully honest it gets. It’s fascinating and terrifying watching mother and daughter wax sentimental while their world literally rots around them. How could one make a film as riveting and penetrating as the docu?

Novice director Michael Sucsy (who co-wrote the teleplay with Patricia Rozema) has found a way: the film pays homage to the Maysles masterpiece while filling in the early years in a captivating but never too salacious way—mostly by paying close attention to what the two women actually state in the documentary.

I was thrilled to learn that Jessica Lange would be playing Edith Sr. Not because she is in any way old enough, but because she is one of our greatest actresses and I had complete faith in her abilities. Drew Barrymore, not so much. I was actually shocked and terrified.

Well, my apologies to Ms. Barrymore for she completely embodies Little Edie in a way that is astonishing to behold. Drew was born to play this part. It is, by far, her best performance and beyond that one of the best acting feats of 2009!

Lange does not disappoint using her amazing talents to make Edith likeable while not eroding any of her pushiness and notions of entitlement.

The two actresses together create a bizarre love story that is simultaneously loving and heartbreaking.

The entire cast is to be commended, especially Jeanne Tripplehorn’s spot-on turn as Jacqueline.

The production values are terrific. Grey Gardens itself is recreated magnificently.

Shot at 1.78:1, the tv film could easily be mistaken for a theatrical feature and looks fantastic on DVD with crisp and dazzling colors marking the early years and many darker shades conveying the decay of the later years.

The audio is, for the most part, excellent—although there were a few times where I had to hit the subtitle button.

The extras include an insightful commentary by Sucsy and the producers as well an incredibly disappointing Making-Of feature. The interviews are terrific. What makes it so disappointing is the length. I will never understand why we are given so little with so many featurettes being produced lately.

Grey Gardens is highly recommended. And it would behoove you to pick up the original documentary as well, but chances are, after watching the HBO film, you will feel compelled to do so anyway.



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