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HBO’s
Bill Maher: …But I’m Not Wrong


DVD Review by Frank J. Avella

Anyone about to watch a Bill Maher comedy routine must know that he will focus on all things political and eventually bash religion. His HBO series Real Time with Bill Maher is a brilliant and insightful panel-oriented assessment of all things political. And his underrated documentary, Religulous, takes on most organized religions to prove that, throughout history they have been at the heart of most of the bad in the world.

So it’s no surprise that his 80-minute special, recorded of all places in Raleigh, North Carolina, is filled with swipes at Obama, the war in Iraq, Michael Jackson, Wall Street and the economy and other political hot button issues. What is surprising is that the most entertaining portion of the show is the one that comes with a warning from Maher himself, the religious part. Here he seems most at ease, taking on much of the religious spectrum from the Pope to Scientology.

The rest of the special is pretty standard Maher stuff. Some of his musings on Real Time are actually funnier and more perceptive. But if you are a fan you will enjoy this special. If you aren’t, why are you buying/renting it anyway?

The 16:9 anamorphic video looks terrific on DVD and the sound is just what it should be.

There are, unfortunately, no extras. A behind-the-scenes with Maher would have rocked!

Maher is one of the most intelligent, acerbic, thought-provoking, savvy and sarcastic comics working today. This is just a small example of his talents.




Gary Winick’s
Letters to Juliet

 

BLU-RAY/DVD Combo Review by Frank J. Avella
SUMMIT ENTERTAINMENT

To call Vanessa Redgrave an acting legend to be revered and treasured is an understatement. I remember her scene at the beginning of Howard’s End, where all she does is stroll slowly through a garden and you cannot take your eyes off her. She was and is luminous.

In 1967 she play Guenevere in Joshua Logan’s film adaptation of Camelot. A then unknown Italian named Franco Nero was cast as Lancelot. Watching their eyes stare at one another longingly, the viewer was tossed into an endless sea of gorgeous blue. Not surprisingly, they fell in love on the set of that film and had a son. What most people don’t know is that they got married…in 2006!

Gary Winick (Tadpole) had the brilliant idea of casting Redgrave and Nero in Letters to Juliet and because of that savvy, smart and sly decision, his film soars more often than not.

Be forewarned, this is an unabashedly schmaltzy tear-jerker that can easily be dismissed as a chick flick. But as far as I’m concerned, if you do not shed at least one tear, you are not human.

The basic plot has Sophie, an aspiring writer, journey to Verona, Italy with her fiancé’ (a nervous-energied Gael Garcia Bernal) who seems more interested in wine and food than Sophie. Upon a visit to Juliet’s house (yes, that Juliet) she notices a gaggle of women placing letters along the wall of the balcony. She answers one that is 50 years old, from a then 15-year old British girl confused about whether she should run away with a Tuscan boy or not. Astonishingly, the letter finds its way to Claire (Vanessa Redgrave) who arrives in Verona with her cranky son Charlie (the dashing Christopher Egan). The three embark on a quest to find Claire’s long lost love, Lorenzo Bartolini, so she will know once and for all if their love was meant to be.

You can figure out what happens within the first fifteen minutes, but that isn’t the point. The joy of watching this film is in enjoying the production values and watching the performances. Especially Redgrave, who should received her seventh Oscar nomination. She plays Claire with a rare understatement that is exquisite and heartbreaking. And when the dialogue is cliché and pat, Redgrave has a way of delivering her lines as if they were written by Shakespeare.

And Franco Nero is given one fantastic scene (and one that can only be found in the Deleted Scenes section) that makes you wish there would be much more of him. As a matter of fact, I found myself often wishing for more Redgrave and Nero. They transcend the melodramatic trappings of the film and their real life story makes the coupling all the more extraordinary and compelling to behold.

When they aren’t onscreen the film is simply adequate.

Amanda Seyfried has great potential, but she’s not quite there yet. The gal has had the great good fortune of already working with two titans: Meryl Streep (on Mamma Mia) and, now, Redgrave. She’s certainly not bad, but there’s very little passion in her portrayals and most of her work is still surface. I say ‘most’ because she does manage some remarkable moments—especially opposite the great Redgrave.

Summit has decided to release the film on a special 2-sided Blu-Ray/DVD combo, which is a great idea for film aficionados who have yet to take the Blu-Ray plunge.

The Blu-ray transfer is pretty stunning preserving the 2.35:1 original aspect ratio. The sumptuous Italian locales are a wonder on Blu-Ray; the film is a visual feast that will make the viewer desperate to visit the Tuscan countryside (and with good reason)!

The 5.1. Dolby Digital HD audio is very good. The terrific score and songs, in particular, sound wonderful.

Extras in this package include: ten minutes of enjoyable Deleted and extended scenes; a feature-length audio commentary with Winick and Seyfried that acts as a terrific locations discussion as well as providing some fun tidbits and two featurettes, ‘The Making Of Letters To Juliet: In Italia,’ a deserved love letter to Italy with some promo interviews interspersed and ‘A Courtyard in Verona,’ which goes into detail about Juliet’s actual courtyard.

See this, for the enchanting Vanessa Redgrave.



HBO’s
The Pacific


BLU-RAY Review by Frank J. Avella

A follow-up of sorts to HBO’s ten-part WW2 masterminiseries Band of Brothers (2001), The Pacific is a companion-piece in many ways and continues to push the boundaries of quality television as only HBO can do. It’s a different side to the same war, literally, and the creators aren’t afraid to show the confusion, brutality and general mayhem of the pacific campaign.

The Pacific begins right after Pearl Harbor and follows a group of Marines to the South Pacific and toward Japan. The lions share of the series is based on the writings of two of the main characters featured in the piece, Eugene Sledge (Joseph Mazzello) an Alabama boy whose heart murmur initially prevents him from enlisting and Robert Leckie (James Badge Dale), a cynical writer.

We also follow, with deliberate erraticness, a gaggle of other guys who are refreshingly not always your traditional stereotypes—although we do get the Waspy vs. ethnic send-off of two of the boys in Part One.

The battles are real and rough and chaotic and terrifying. No one is a hero yet somehow these men seem quite heroic. Leckie muses in Episode One: “There are things that men can do to one another that are sobering to the soul.”

By the time we get to Iwo Jima and Okinawa, we, the viewers, are battle-scarred and have a greater understanding of exactly what we asked these boys to do for their country and the price they paid for their sacrifices.

The Blu-Ray set comes in a nifty tin box which house the six discs.

Visually, I have not seen a better transfer. The 1080p high-def image is presented in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and looks better than when it aired on HBO. The colors are so rich and the image quality is so vivid, you feel you are there with the soldiers in battle. And that can be scary.

And speaking of scary the DTS 5.1 sound is amazing with bombing attacks that make you feel like you need to run for cover. I don’t have state-of-the-art speakers and I was spooked. I suggest you blast the volume and get the full effect.

Supplemental features include the Introductions that aired before each broadcasts and feature interviews with survivors and historical footage. Each episode allows for Enhanced Viewing, which provides all kinds of pop-up info. You don’t want to use this until you go back and rewatch an episode, as it can be distracting. There is also a Field Guide option where you can maneuver through timelines.

Five discs contain ten episodes. The sixth disc boasts three enlightening sections: ‘Profiles of The Pacific’ is a fascinating look at the six major players in the series; ‘Making The Pacific’ is a 30-minute documentary and ‘Anatomy of the Pacific
War’s a too-short feature on Japanese combat.

Executive produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, The Pacific is another feather in HBO’s continuing cap of excellence that is as remarkable as it is unparalleled.


 

 


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