Film and Theater Column
a booming end to an exciting Bway season!
Written by Frank J. Avella
Opposite Photo from Alan
Ball's True Love
By far, the best
new show on TV last year is also one of the most
divisive—and we’d expect no less from
the creator of the groundbreaking HBO series Six
Feet Under, Alan Ball (he also has an Oscar
for writing American Beauty!) Ball keeps
pushing the envelope with his penetrating explorations
of our country’s inhabitants and their faux
moral values vs. what is really going on when the
sun goes down. He’s become a modern day Billy
Wilder of sorts with sprinkles of David Lynch, Oliver
Stone and even Lars Von Trier all rolled into one
small screen watchdog.
And thank the gods that HBO realizes
his genius and allows him to continue his explorations.
Smart, savvy and refreshingly
unsubtle, True Blood takes the told-to-death-and-beyond
vampire tale and truly breathes new life into it
(you can intend the pun if you like) by taking the
existence of these fanged beasts to a new level
Based of the book "Dead Until
Dark" by Charlaine Harris, this series probes
how the “coming out of the coffin” of
actual vampires affects a small Louisiana town (as
microcosm for middle America). The gay analogies
are obvious and the discoveries are biting, by the
way (again, pun intended!)
The ensemble of actors is one
of the best, if not THE best on television as well
(Mad Men and Damages give it competition).
And, if there’s any justice it will reap a
slew of Emmy nominations come July.
In True Blood, Vampires
are trying to co-exist with humans (and other supernatural
creatures). It’s been two years since they’ve
revealed themselves to the world and they have become
the center of a political maelstrom, especially
in the U.S. The shows focus is the town of Bon Temps,
LA and in the first episode, sweet and virginal
waitress Sookie (a terrific and underrated Anna
Paquin) meets her very first vampire, the brooding
and intense Bill Compton (the sizzle-sexy Stephen
Moyer) when he walks into Merlotte’s restaurant
Sookie falls for Bill and that
does not sit well with most of the folks in her
life including: her sassy and no-bullshit best friend
Tara (the brilliant Rutina Wesley); her boss Sam
(a dynamic Sam Trammell) who carries a pretty obvious
torch for her; her slut of a brother Jason (the
way-too-gorgeous Ryan Kwanten) and the colorful
and oh-so-gay cook Lafayette (Nelsan Ellie, stealing
every scene he is in), just to name a few.
As the episodes progress we become
privy to Sookie’s homelife with her doting
grandmother (Lois Smith) and come to know Sookie
and her psychic abilities (she can hear most people’s
thoughts—which is not the gift we might see
it as). We also learn all about Bill and his past,
pre-undead. And a serial killer is on the loose,
in Bon Temps, murdering women. The first victim,
Maudette Pickens—and how great is that name—was
a fangbanger, a woman who got off on shtooping vampires.
The first few shows nicely and
keenly introduce the cast of characters and begin
dropping clues about plot twists to come. By episode
five the stakes are raised quite a bit and the series
becomes unrelentingly absorbing until the cliffhanger
Besides taking on the foibles
of the religious right as well as the still-bigoted
and brainwashed American south, Ball draws insights
into drug use (V-blood and Crystal Meth seem to
have a lot in common), race relations and, as stated
above, gay rights. But polemics aside, it’s
a damn kick-ass good drama/satire with lots of blood,
violence and nudity to keep the viewer excited.
HBO has released the box set as
dually DVD and Blu-Ray compatible so if you have
a Blu-Ray player, it automatically formats it.
The picture quality, in high def,
is fantastic with great blues and grays and, of
course, blood reds. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1.
Mood is captured perfectly as well as the creepy,
sticky Louisiana ambiance.
The audio (DTS) is dead on terrific.
The sound design truly rocks.
The extras include some insightful
and fun commentary tracks.As great as these extras
are (and they are) it is supremely frustrating that
the only way to access them is via the Enhanced
Viewing, meaning you have to watch the entire series
again and wait for these features to pop up. That’s
more than 12 hours of time to enjoy these goodies.
Why not simply make them a part of an Extras Menu?
And the features seem to be fewer and fewer with
each subsequent episode.
But that’s really the only
complaint that I have. The True Blood DVD/Blu-Ray
box set is the first NEED TO OWN TV series of 2009!
And with season two upon us, it’s a perfect
way to prepare.
More Vampires on Blu-Ray/DVD
Rhona Mitra in Patrick Tatopoulos'
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans
The first Underworld was
a lot of fun and cleverly blended the audience’s
fascination with vampires and werewolves. The second
Underworld sucked. And not in the good
way. The filmmakers felt the need to pander to the
small boy crowd by loading the film with craptacular
visuals and fights foregoing any of the intelligence
that went into the making of the first one.
The third entry into the franchise,
Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, is a combination
of the two. A prequel, if you will, the movie focuses
on Lucian (hard-to-believe it’s Michael Sheen
from Frost/Nixon and The Queen!),
the original Lycan and his breaking free from the
slavery of vampire King Viktor (the fab Bill Nighy),
while romancing his daughter Sonja (Nip/Tuck’s
Rhona Mitra, who bears a striking resemblance to
The plot is pretty simplistic
and some of the narrative is an assault on most
of our senses but the assault is sensational on
Blu-Ray! Also, Sheen, Nighy and Mitra are such good
thespians that they make the mediocre feel practically
Shakespearean. Viktor to Sonja: (with great British
elocution) “You will learn the dance of politics,
to be ruthless and cunning.” Actually, it’s
the father/daughter conflict that keeps this film
interesting—that and Sheen having so much
fun as Lucian.
Digitally shot, Lycans
looks cinematic enough and on Blu-Ray has great
visual clarity and detail. The film is deliberately
shot in a blue-gray style and the werewolves tend
to leap out of the TV in the HD format. The sound
is even more impressive in 24-bit Dolby TrueHD.
Lycans boasts some nice
extras including: audio commentary with the director,
visual effects supervisor and producers; three decent
Making-of documentaries; a “Death Club”
music video and trailers for the previous two Underworld
films. There are two highlights that are exclusive
to the Blu-Ray disc. Firstly, there’s a picture-in-picture
feature titled Behind the Castle Walls
which is a wonderful companion piece to the film
and explores the behind-the-scenes pretty thoroughly.
Lycanthropes Around the World is an interactive
map that shows alleged werewolf sightings on three
continents through the centuries.
Also on Blu-Ray (and DVD)
Ari Folman's Waltz with
Waltz with Bashir
Writer/Director Ari Folman created
one of the most visually arresting, politically
potent films of last year. Nominated for Best Foreign-Language
Film at this year’s Oscars, Waltz with
Bashir is an animated documentary about one
soldier’s journey into his past to discover
the atrocities that forced him to shut down his
memory. The film transcends the norms of storytelling,
offering a disturbing, visceral experience for the
viewer. And on Blu-Ray, the impact is heightened
with gorgeously deceptive visuals usually followed
by devastating scenes depicting the folly of war.
The animation looks creepily real
on Blu-Ray (it did on the big screen as well) and
the sound is sharp and resonant.
The disc features a fascinating
commentary track by Folman as well as a brief but
concise Q&A with the filmmaker and the trainer.
In addition, there is a Making-of documentary as
well as ‘Animatic’ analyses of four
There is also an English language
version of the film that I wouldn’t normally
recommend but helps in not taking away from the
Also on DVD
The Strange One
A lost gem from 1957 has finally
been released on DVD. The Strange One,
aptly named, tells the story of an angry and malevolent
cadet Named Jocko deParis (a brash and mesmerizing
Ben Gazzara in his film debut) and how he manipulates
the younger cadets at a southern military college
into ousting an officer via a Machiavellian plot.
Based on a play by Calder Willingham
(writer of The Graduate), the movie is
engrossing if a bit too stagily directed. Prior
to the picture’s release, and without the
consent of the director (Jack Garfein), producer
Sam Spiegel excised footage from the film that ‘suggested
homosexuality.’ This DVD restores the footage,
and it is actually wince inducing, mostly because
of the performance by Paul E. Richards who makes
the writer character a creepy, swishy sissy.
The film is shot in black and
white and looks striking on DVD.
Besides Gazzara, the other stand
out is a young and handsome George Peppard who is
wonderfully understated as the cadet with a conscience.
In a far-too-brief (10 minute)
interview, Gazzara explains how Spiegel had every
intention of firing Garfein until Gazzara went to
bat for him. Once the film was released, though,
Spiegel dumped it into theatres without any publicity
and it died at the box office.
A stage director, Garfein showed
real promise with The Strange One but only
made three films total. One has to wonder if the
powerful titan Spiegel had anything to do with that
The Poker Club
Johnathon Schaech (That Thing
You Do, The Doom Generation) and Loren
Dean (Billy Bathgate, Mumford)
are two actors who showed tremendous promise in
the 1990’s only to be relegated to low budget
craptastic fare in the new millennium.
The Poker Club is actually
a fairly decent straight-to-dvd thriller with some
really suspenseful moments and good acting (especially
an appropriately over-the-top Johnny Messner). Four
buddies get together, as they always do, to play
poker. Only this particular night a burglar is caught
in Schaech’s home and one of the guys accidentally
murders him. You know what’s coming. Yes,
they decide to dispose of the body and, yes, things
go fuckbad from that point on. There’s a female
cop (Judy Reyes, having some fun) on the case and
as the intrigue builds and the body count escalates.
The climax is a bit unsatisfying but I do recommend
the film since I was never bored and always entertained.
I still think Schaech and Dean
deserve much better.
Ciao to a terrific theatre season
I made it a point to catch 33
Variations a third time in it’s final
week (how many more times will Jane Fonda appear
on Broadway?) and I was so happy I did. The play
was so much tighter and flowed better since the
second week of previews and the cast worked magnificently
together. There was a real sense that the actors
were still discovering new things about their characters.
The highly ambitious work by Moises Kaufman had
definitely moved closer to achieving what it sets
As for Fonda, she has grown so
much with the role and really embodied the part
of Katherine wholly. It’s a triumphant stage
return that should have been Tony lauded.
Ah, but her competition was fierce.
Harriet Walter and Janet
McTeer in Mary Stuart
The ladies of Mary Stuart:
Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter as Mary Stuart and
Queen Elizabeth respectively, deliver towering performances
and the (historically inaccurate but highly dramatic)
scene where the two finally meet is one of the most
mesmerizing moments on stage this year.
Marcia Gay Hardin, James
Gandolfini, Hope Davis and Jeff Daniels of
God of Carnage
God of Carnage, by Yasmina
Reza, is a trifle of a play, that won the Tony in
a season wherewhere new plays are thankfully plentiful,
but sorrowfully mediocre (even Neil LaBute’s
Reasons to Be Pretty falls short of his
more biting work). Carnage is lucky to
have Marcia Gay Harden stealing scenes and making
so much more with the material than the script provides.
Even Hope Davis, who I’ve never been a big
fan of, impresses as do the boys: a hilarious James
Gandolfini and Jeff Daniels.
How do you choose between these
five wonderful performances? Well, my heart says
Fonda deserved it, simply for captivating an audience
and allowing us into a brave new world. But I cannot
fault the voters for giving it to Harden since she
is so good and should have won for Angels in
America over a decade ago.
On the musical front, Billy
Elliot justly won and while I have not seen
the Broadway production I did catch it in London
two years ago and it’s simply fantastic. How
great was the moment where all three Billys stood,
dumbstruck at the podium, accepting their Tonys?
Next to Normal
I did see Next to Normal and
it’s absolutely worthy (and I am thrilled
it won best score!) First off, it’s an original
musical…unheard of these days. It isn’t
based on a film or novel! Imagine. And it focuses
on a bipolar woman who has been interacting with
her dead son for a good eighteen years. Not the
typical Broadway musical plot. Alice Ripley justly
won the Best Actress Tony!
As far as Rock of Ages
goes, all I can say is that the nominating committee
must have really hated 9 to 5 to have scraped
the bottom and come up with a Best Musical nomination
for that mess.
The best musical of the season
is actually 40 years old and that would be the amazing
and infectious revival of Hair.
Before I sign off I wanted to
make mention of two splendid off-Broadway performances:
one in a kick-ass crackpot new musical (based on
a film, imagine!) and the other in a misguided revival.
Nancy Opel in The Toxic
Nancy Opel raises the roof off
the New World Stages in The Toxic Avenger
playing two roles and doing it in the most frenzied
and dazzling way. Get this woman a Broadway show,
Michael Carbonaro in Sophistry
And the recent revival of Jonathan
Marc Sherman’s Sophistry proves incredibly
disappointing since it drops what is most interesting
about the play midway through. Only Michael Carbonaro
as the student who accuses a professor of sexual
assault keeps us from falling asleep (and he isn’t
even in most of Act Two). Carbonaro gives a layered
and nuanced portrayal of a very troubled young man.
His performance makes Sophistry worth the