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Frank J. Avella’s
Film and Theater Column

Vampires, DVDs/Blu-Rays…and a booming end to an exciting Bway season!

Written by Frank J. Avella

Opposite Photo from Alan Ball's True Love

True Blood

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.

True Blood

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 of reality.

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 one night.

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 season finale.

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 Kate Beckinsale).

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 Bashir

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 scenes.

There is also an English language version of the film that I wouldn’t normally recommend but helps in not taking away from the stunning visuals.

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 sad footnote.

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 out to.

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.

Billy Elliot

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 Avenger

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, pronto!

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 sit.











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