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Frank J. Avella’s
Film Column

Oscar Underdogs on DVD

Written by Frank J. Avella

Opposite Photo:
Dev Patel and Freida Pinto
Slumdog Millionaire

Two major Oscar winners have recently been released on DVD and both easily prove why they won numerous awards and are considered to be among the best of 2008. Each deserve to find a larger audience on the small screen.

Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire, the little crowd-pleaser that came dangerously close to not getting theatrical distribution, is given a striking digital transfer, looking as mesmerizing as it did in theaters.

Winner of a whopping eight Academy Awards, this gem is a structurally brilliant tour of today’s Mumbai via the young but turbulent life of three of its more destitute citizens, particularly, Jamal, our Who Wants To Be a Millionaire contestant/protagonist.

Helmer Danny Boyle’s frenetic style all but engulfs the viewer, never allowing us a moment to breathe. I almost paused once but didn’t want to lose the momentum—and I had already seen the film twice! I have always been an advocate for seeing films in theaters, but I was even more moved by the intimacy of this film in the home theater format.

Anthony Dod Mantle’s breathtaking camerawork and Chris Dickens’ precise editing along with A.R. Rahman’s infectious score enhance Simon Beaufoy’s clever script. And in the hands of Boyle, the film nearly jumps out of the TV. All of the above won well-deserved Oscars.

The disc is abundant with special features including over 30-minutes of enjoyable deleted and extended scenes, the last two in particular help to fill in some of the plot blanks (they’re not vital, but are certainly interesting) and others add to the film experience.

Two separate commentary tracks allow us to enjoy the schoolboy excitement of Danny Boyle and Dev Patel as they provide scene specific insights as well as producer Christian Colson and Beaufoy’s comments.

Slumdog Dreams, a pretty standard documentary, features further reflections on the making of the film including the fact that it was Beaufoy that made up the word “slumdog.”

The film is in 2.35:1 widescreen. DVD audio is 5.1 Dolby Surround.


Sean Penn is quite simply one of the best actors of his generation, but rarely will an actor win two Oscars in a five year time-span. The main reason Penn won again so shortly after taking home the gold for Mystic River in 2004 is because HE DESERVED IT. Penn’s performance is the reason cinephiles get excited about acting. His Milk is an absolute immersion into the body, mind and spirit of this gay icon. It is not an impersonation or recreation as much as it is a melding of who Milk was with who Penn chose to create. He is captivating from beginning to end.

The DVD is a testament to this amazing achievement.

Credit must also go to director Gus Van Sant who breaks so many of the predictable rules of the biopic and has fashioned a galvanizing gay rights film that is as urgent as it is relevant. With the passage of Proposition 8 in California, Milk proves timely and has the balls to boldly stand for human rights without ever seeming preachy or didactic.

Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black is responsible for the smartly structured and perfectly calibrated screenplay.

Milk is filmmaking at its best and boasts great camerawork, deft editing as well as an impressive ensemble, including a wonderfully nuanced performance by the underrated James Franco.

The film looks fantastic on DVD with perfect color saturation. The blending of archival footage with Van Sant’s work is remarkably effective.

The special features include: a 13-minute documentary titled Remembering Harvey, with interviews of some of Harvey Milk’s friends but, strangely, no footage of Milk himself; an 8-minute short called March for Equality as well as a paltry 3 minutes and 46 seconds of deleted scenes. The highlight is the way-too-short 14-minute Hollywood Comes to San Francisco feature, an insightful and entertaining “Making of” segment that boasts interviews with many of the creative team (although Penn and Van Sant are not among the interviewees).

The brevity of the bonus materials is a great disappointment in an otherwise terrific package. One can only hope there is a Special Edition planned where we can get some true meat to the story of the making of this landmark film.

Milk is presented in widescreen 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 television screens.Audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital.

Also out on DVD

Steve Sandvoss and Nick Wechsler in Fling

Fling is an edgy and exciting film that deserved a theatrical run, even if it fails to live up to its provocative premise. The opening segments begin brazenly enough as we meet our two lovers at a wedding and soon realize they’re in an open relationship that appears to keep them both carnally content. The hand-held technique, reminiscent of Rachel Getting Married—especially in the opening scenes, adds to the sexually-infused, refreshingly honest feel of the film.

Unfortunately, after the first hour, a cliché’ plot contrivance derails the narrative and it never recovers—worse, the writers (director John Stewart Muller and producer Laura Boersma) start to moralize and judge their characters instead of continuing the enlightening exploration they so ambitiously began.

The acting is adequate. Brandon Routh (Superman Returns) gets top billing even though his role is a supporting one but the real breakout performance is by Steve Sandvoss who does so much more with Mason than the dialogue would normally allow. Nick Wechsler is also a standout as Mason’s best friend/manager.

The DVD is nice to look at (especially since so many of the young cast are nice to look at). Much is shot in close up and that bodes well on the small screen. The audio, however, is often muffled and the dialogue is sometimes difficult to hear.

Fling’s special features include commentary by the director, producer and cinematographer as well as deleted and extended scenes that include a hilarious turn by NY stage actress Deborah Rush. There are some neat interviews with the actors and a cheesily put together ‘making of’ documentary.

New York Theatre:

33 Variations

Before Meryl Streep came of age onscreen, one woman dominated the films of the late 60s into the early 80s. She was rightly considered the most outstanding actress of her day. Then she made a few, self-admitted, misguided career- and life-choices and disappeared from the screen until…recently.

Jane Fonda has, thankfully, reappeared onscreen and…on Broadway! After a 46 year absence onstage, at 71, Fonda easily proves why she received all the accolades she did in her film heyday. 33 Variations, by Moises Kaufman, is a fascinating and ambitious work that never quite achieves greatness, yet Fonda transcends the material and creates an amazing portrait of a woman trying desperately to understand the significance of her life…and of life in general, through her appreciation of music. It’s a masterful performance that should not be missed by anyone who appreciates great acting.

Blithe Spirit

The revival of Noel Coward’s silly but funny Blithe Spirit has a quartet of marvelous thespians to keep it alive as well as Michael Blakemore’s smart direction. Go see it, if only for the delightful Angela Lansbury (a legend still going strong at 83!), the delectable Rupert Everett, the delovely Christine Ebersole and, stealing every scene she is in, the divine Jayne Atkinson.

Even when the play disappoints, these titans soar.

Finian's Rainbow

Over at the City Center Encores! series they continue to push the staging parameters with a rousing revival of Finian’s Rainbow.

The spirited musical first bowed in 1947 and played 725 performances. With a memorable score by Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg, the show’s social lessons make it feel quite dated, yet the fiscally cynical theme gives the show a renewed bite in 2009. If only the book were richer and Act Two had more bite. What makes this production so worthwhile are the wonderful performances by many in the ensemble. The always dashing Cheyenne Jackson is so charming as Woody, you want to see more of him.

Newcomer Kate Baldwin is enchanting and her stirring rendition of the show’s signature song, “How are Things in Glocca Morra,” stops the show. Jim Norton, so good in The Seafarer last year, is a delight as Finian even with his limited vocal abilities. And Alina Faye’s graceful dancing is absolutely captivating.

For me, Francis Ford Coppola’s underrated 1968 film adaptation with Fred Astaire and Petula Clark, is the perfect time capsule version of the show, but this production allows a new generation to appreciate the many wonders to be found in a show that, in its day, was pretty daring.













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