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HBO’s Bored to Death: The Complete First Season


DVD Review by Frank J. Avella

As short seasons go, HBO’s Bored to Death takes the prize with only eight episodes that are each under 30 minutes long. Luckily the show is compelling enough to forgive this injustice.

Jason Schwartzman has spent his short career playing shlubby, oddball intellectuals (He’s got a part in almost every Wes Anderson film). In Bored to Death he plays Jonathan Ames, a neurotic writer who is (barely) working on his second novel. Jonathan is too preoccupied with smoking pot and drinking—which is reason enough for his girlfriend Suzanne (the delightful Olivia Thirlby) to abandon him.

Jonathan inadvertently places an ad pretending to be a private detective and the season follows his adventures as he attempts to solve some bizarre cases that turn pretty hilarious.

The show takes a few episodes to establish its rhythm and style but the writing soon catches up to the impressive acting.

The featured players often upstage Schwartzman, particularly Ted Danson who plays a magazine honcho and is so side-splittingly funny (the antithesis of his Frobisher character on Damages) that I can’t comprehend how he was overlooked for an Emmy nomination. Also providing great support are Zach Galifianakis and Heather Burns. And some surprise guest appearances add to the craziness. Bebe Neuwirth and Kristen Wiig are particularly nutty.

The DVD anamorphic transfer is decent enough with daytime shots looking much better than nighttime. It’s nothing special, though, and considering how new the series is, it should look much better.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounds fine and the music is mixed well.

The enjoyable Special Features include: four fun audio commentaries; a pretty good “The Making of Bored to Death” featurettes (20 min.); a tour-type docu titled “Jonathan Ames’s Brooklyn” and about seven minutes of funny Deleted Scenes.

I look forward to seeing where Season Two goes this Fall.




Robert Altman’s
Brewster McCloud

 

DVD Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Warner Archives
Original film release date: 1970

Robert Altman was a bold and unconventional filmmaker whose body of work is unlike any other director. His films are often subversive, sardonic and euphorically satiric.

Brewster McCloud (along with M*A*S*H earlier the same year) began the true Altman trend of anti-establishment and conformity, pro-anarchy and eccentricity. His view of America was at once loving and critical.

All of the Altman staples can be found in Brewster including: strong female characters (they are the ones in this film that rule the car chase sequences); overlapping dialogue (which he would master in Nashville); multiple plots maneuverings and convergences (Nashville, Short Cuts, Gosford Park to name a few); marvelously individual characters who never behave quite the way we expect them to as well as fantastic and rich use of the widescreen frame.

As the film opens the MGM lion appears and instead of roaring, we hear Rene Auberjonois’s voice say: “I forgot the opening line.” His character, known as The Lecturer, is a kind of narrator but as the film progresses he metamorphoses into something entirely unique.

Sally Kellerman (Oscar nominated for M*A*S*H) perfectly embodies Louise, an angelic figure in a trenchcoat (a figure revisited brilliantly in the form of Virginia Madsen’s Angel of Death in Altman’s lovely swan song, A Prairie Home Companion). Is she a fallen angel? She’s certainly conniving and devious. And bent on helping Brewster (the odd and delightful Bud Cort) achieve his goal: flying.

So much more is going on in the film including a ribbing of some of the popular films of the day like Shaft, played by soon-to-be Altman staple Michael Murphy in a hilarious turn as an arrogant cop who has no real skills, but does have magnificent blue eyes. Bullitt is also made fun of via ridiculous car chases that never end quite the way you’d expect.

Even The Wizard of Oz is referenced repeatedly thanks to the appearance of Margaret Hamilton as a racist soprano in ruby slippers and Jennifer Salt (Waldo’s daughter, from TV’s Soap, now the Eat Pray Love screenwriter) wearing a dead-on Dorothy outfit.

And we get the early ramblings of Shelley Duvall, who would go on to star in a slew of Altman films including Thieves Like Us, Nashville, 3 Women and Popeye.

Did I fail to synopsize the plot in a cohesive way for you? That was deliberate and my tribute to Altman.

The DVD box states this is a “Remastered Edition.” The MGM/UA, laserdisc edition a while back, was a pretty murky transfer. This 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer is much better, though not great. Some specs and spots have not been cleaned up, but the colors look really good and I am just grateful we finally have a DVD of this wonderful film.

The 2.0 stereo audio is well-done, sounds great (we can hear most of the signature Altman overlapping dialogue) and the fabulous songs are crisp and mixed well.

There is one sole extra (not a surprise from an archive pressing) but it is a fascinating curio: the theatrical trailer. Watching this misrepresentation of the film proves enlightening. You can feel a befuddled and confounded studio trying desperately to make the film appear conventional—the one thing it is certainly, and most refreshingly, not. How to sell Brewster McCloud to the masses? If they were simply smart they would have sold it as an original work from one of the most original filmmakers of that time. And today, after five decades of one of the most amazing contributions to celluloid, it can be said: one of the most original filmmakers of all-time.

Brewster McCloud is a highly ambitious, deliberately erratic film about a serial killer who wants to fly. No, it’s about a boy who shuns racism and the establishment. No, it’s a send-up of just how ridiculous cops are. No, its…it’s whatever you take away from it. Altman allows the viewer a part in the process, so if you’re willing to work a bit, the results are often sublime.



Gossip Girl: The Complete Third Season

DVD review by Frank J. Avella

Spotted: An oxymoron. An intelligent show about teens.

The CW’s Gossip Girl has managed to survive three seasons without relying too much on tired soap plots. The writing isn’t as crisp as previous seasons, but the show still packs a punch and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats with exciting cliffhanger endings and good storytelling.

Based on the best-selling series by Cecily von Ziegesar, the show now follows our favorite Upper East Siders to college—some of them anyway. Long-lost sons, a long-presumed dead mother, a long-absent father, are just a few of the surprises in store. Season Three is loaded with plot twists and turns that really rev things up mid-way through and there’s quite a finale to keep audiences hungry for Season Four.

The cast, for the most part, continues to shine—especially the gorgeous Leighton Meester as Blair Waldorf. Her scenes with the terrific Ed Westwick, as Chuck Bass, are some of the best on television. Kelly Rutherford as Lily and Matthew Settle as Rufus continue to do good work, although it’s frustrating to watch the writers find new ways to rattle and upset this wonderful couple. Rutherford deserves her own series.

Blake Lively is just a fabulous Serena—chock full of complexities and insecurities. Long may Serena and Blair reign. Guest appearance by the stunning Laura Harring (Mulholland Drive) and Aaron Tveit are also quite welcome. I hope Season Four reintroduces the Tveit character.

Chace Crawford's acting abilities have yet to be challenged. He's really nice to look at and may very well be a decent enough actor. Time will tell. Look for him in an upcoming Bruce Beresford film with Jane Fonda."

On the minus side: Taylor Momsen, as Jenny, went to the Kristen Stewart school of acting. She does petulant very well, but can’t muster much else. And Penn Badgley, as her brother Dan, is just irksome. In Season One he was marginally likeable. Now, he’s just annoying—the character and the actor. Finally, Jessica Szohr, as Vanessa, has little to no appeal. I just wish Dan and Vanessa would move away somewhere--preferably to the island on Lost—and take Jenny as a pet.

The DVD anamorphic transfer looks amazing with the Upper East Side and other locales popping nicely. The sound is also quite good.

The paltry Special Features include a gag reel and two GG-oriented Lady Gaga videos: “Bad Romance” and “Bitch.” There is also a featurette titled “A Gossip Girl Fabulous Affair: Throwing a Party Gossip Girl Style.” What fans crave, though, are interviews with these wonderful stars. Perhaps Season Four will oblige.

Own it now on DVD (release: August 24, 2010)

Note: if you visit www.gossipgirltvondvd.com, you’ll be able to connect to the GG facebook page and read fabricated gossip about randomly chosen friends and try and guess who it is.



David Kittredge's
Pornography A Thriller

DVD Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Wolfe Video

The DVD release of the mindbending feature, Pornography A Thriller, gave me the opportunity to view it a third time. Was it less confusing? No. But it still held my interest and fascinated me throughout.

The Mulholland Drive-esque narrative approach is refreshing as writer/director David Kittredge asks compelling and disturbing questions and refuses to answer them in any direct, cohesive or obvious way.

Pornography explores the nature of desire and why people are drawn to porn. The movie also delves into the dark side of the industry and how aficionados of porn (as well as folks in general) are soon bored with the same old-same old sexually, and crave the new and thrilling—and how dangerous losing oneself in fantasy can be.

Kittredge is a clever filmmaker and he keeps the mystery of his crazy/crackers/cuckoo narrative alive. He even pokes fun at the expectations—requirements that audiences have (thanks mostly to Hollywood) that films be simple and packaged---all must be explained in the end…well, not in this madflick! Kittredge dares the audience to fill in their own blanks—to think, for a change—to piece it together themselves, but to also ruminate on their own complicity in the necessity for pornography.

Broken into three specific portions, the film first chronicles the last few days in the life of porn star Mark Anton (Jared Grey). The bracingly lengthy scene between Alton and the sleazy producer is compelling and a perfect example of how well written, directed and acted the film is. The look of this first segment has a very gritty, 70s-movie feel to it with a porno-blue color domination.

Just when you’re settling in for being unsettled, the film jarringly switches gears as we flash forward 14 years and writer Michael Castigan (a believably grungy Matthew Montgomery) is investigating the actual disappearance of Anton. He has just moved into a new place with his lover and the apartment seems to hold some clues to the ever-growing mystery.

But don’t get too comfy because just when you feel you’re becoming as unhinged as the characters onscreen, the film shifts a third time as we watch porn star/writer/director-wannabe Matt Stevens (Pete Scherer) writing the story of Mark Anton. Apparently he’s been dreaming his life, not even certain there was ever a real Mark Anton, and has been typing it into a porn extravaganza. Stevens insists on playing Anton and directing. Many of the characters in this segment resemble people in the first and second segments.

The surreality of the situation reaches a plateau as the film speeds towards its ambiguous and spellbinding conclusion.

The cast is mostly above par with Jared Grey and Pete Scherer particularly outstanding as the porn star and his portrayer.

The film’s murky, deliberately erratic visuals transfer fairly well (aspect ratio: 1.66:1) while the Dolby audio is adequate.

Extras include: a 13-minute, sound-bite-heavy Featurette, 19 minutes of Deletes Scenes that actually fill in some plot holes while managing to delightfully confuse things further as well as a chatty, playful and sometimes insightful Audio Commentary by Kittredge, producer Sean Abley and three of the actors (Montgomery, Sherer and Grey).

For gay (and straight) audiences that like being challenged by their films, this is the film to buy or rent. If you want mindless, best to go elsewhere…like the Midwest.



Brian Koppelman & David Levien’s
Solitary Man


BLU-RAY Review by Frank J. Avella

ANCHOR BAY

I missed this sleeper earlier in the year, and now I get all the Oscar buzz around Michael Douglas. Just when I was about to write him off and declare that his last great performance was in The Wonder Boys in 2000 (for which he should have been nominated), along comes this wonderful gem where Douglas gets to play an uncompromising, womanizing cad with such believability, I began to weep for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Douglas is fearless and directors Brian Koppelman (who also wrote the crisp and lean script) and David Levien refuse to compromise his character and force out a feel-good movie. Thank the cinema gods!

Douglas plays Ben Kalmen who, for spoiler-reasons I won’t go into, begins an ethical and moral downward spiral that includes: cheating on his now ex-wife (Susan Sarandon); embezzling monies at his auto dealership; and even sleeping with the teenage daughter of his current girlfriend…for which he pays a high price.

Ben does whatever it takes to get what he wants. In a particularly wince-inducing moment, he even tries to steal the girlfriend of a young college kid he is mentoring. It’s rock bottom, to say the least.

Besides Douglas, the ensemble is uniformly excellent. Susan Sarandon simply ups the quality-ante of any film she appears in. This is no different. With her cast as the ex, we wonder why he would ever even think of hurting her. Mary-Louise Parker has some fun playing a woman with wealth and power. Jenna Fischer shines as Ben’s long-suffering daughter. Imogen Poots mixes just the right measure of bitch and cocktease. And Olivia Thirlby has a kickass (uncredited) scene where she gets to put Ben in his place.

It’s definitely a Michael Douglas year with the Wall Street sequel right around the corner. Solitary Man proves he is still working at the top of his craft and willing to take risks.

Solitary Man looks better on Blu-Ray than an indie has a right to. The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is nicely preserved in the transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is clear and crisp enhancing Michael Penn’s impressive score as well as the Johnny Cash rendition of the title song.

The paltry extras include: a decent commentary featuring the directors and actor Douglas McGrath (who is in the film briefly); a ridiculously short (11-minutes) Making of docu titled, ‘Solitary Man: Alone in the Crowd’ and the original trailer.

Whether you get it on DVD or Blu-Ray I do recommend this film.
Released September 7, 2010

 

 

 

 


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