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David Michôd's
Animal Kingdom
BLU-RAY

 

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

I want to say up front that to truly appreciate how fantastic a film Animal Kingdom is, I recommend two viewings. The reasons have everything to do with the tremendously dense script, incredibly subtle performances and how difficult the Australian accents can be for Americans to understand (subtitles are recommended).

Writer/Director David Michôd (his first helmed feature) has crafted a rich, gritty, penetrating stunner of a tale about a family of criminals who come up against shifty, vengeful cops.

As the film opens, Joshua (newcomer James Frecheville in an extraordinary performance) is watching a game show seated next to his mother. We soon realize she is dead and he is waiting for the paramedics to arrive. The indifferent look on his face is chilling.

Joshua is taken in by his sweet, overly loving, crafty grandmother known as “Smurf" (Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver). Smurf lives with her three sons: Craig (a perfectly nervous Sullivan Stapleton); her youngest Darren (the cute and gifted Luke Ford) as well as the downright evil "Pope" (Ben Mendelsohn in a terrifying turn).

Joshua finds himself drawn into a world no teen should ever be drawn into. I’m not going to give away any plot since one of the joys of seeing the film the first time is being taken aback by the elaborate and engrossing maneuverings of the plot and characters.

This is not your typical gangster story by any stretch—it’s an angry, nasty, harrowingly realistic film that never fills in all the blanks for us. For instance is Grandma Smurf simply a byproduct of who her sons have become or did she create the monsters herself?

Part of the genius of the gray-area answers to that question have to do with just how assured Michôd is as a film director and how he guides his actors to make the less obvious choices.

Jacki Weaver has been winning awards for her portrayal and, initially, you may ask yourself why. She’s a loving, gentle and protective mother hen…that’s our first impression until we begin realizing the unnerving layers to her performance. Behind all the “sweeties” is something so much more sinister and disturbing…or is it? Oh, yes, it is. Wait, she’s not that creepy… “Give us a kiss!” Oh yes she is. (sorry but that will make more sense when you see the film.) She becomes a wholly captivating character rich with a subtly savage nature that is deliciously offset by her kind surface demeanor.

The impressive Blu-Ray transfer of the 2.4:1 aspect ratio enhances the film’s aesthetics and is a treat for cinema lovers.

The 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track does exactly what it’s supposed to with its quiet moments as well as the violent outbursts. Once again, though, accents become an issue.

Special Features include a decent Audio Commentary with Michôd, although he sounds a bit uncomfortable and tends to repeat things.

Blu-Rayers are also treated to a 34-minute Q & A taped after the L.A. Film Festival screening featuring Michôd, Weaver and Frecheville. Michôd, as with the commentary, is very honest and critical of himself. Frecheville tells a great story of how he was cast (which is repeated in the docu) and Weaver is fun to listen to.

The best of the Bonus Features is a 71-minute docu called “Creating Animal Kingdom,’ a pretty comprehensive look at the genesis, production and reaction to the film. Michôd and his casting director explain the exhaustive casting process (Weaver was attached very early on, Guy Pearce came later) and each actor gets to chime in about their respective roles and how they approached the script. We become privy to Weaver explaining that she was a bit disappointed that Michôd wanted her to not play Smurf as a “baddie.” Boy, are we thankful he didn’t and she should be as well.

Also included is the Original Theatrical Trailer.

Animal Kingdom is a must for film lovers and future filmmakers to savor and study.


 

HBO’s
Big Love: The Complete Fourth Season
DVD


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Season Three of HBO’s seriously mesmerizing show, Big Love, presented a whirlwind of secrets, lies and intrigue. Season Four continues the insanity, almost to an outrageous degree—although change and anteing up the stakes can be very good for a show that already feels farfetched and difficult to swallow.

With prophet Roman Grant’s death and Bill’s senate run, the show continues to explore the struggles of Bill (Bill Paxton) and his three Mormon wives (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin, still stealing all her scenes) living a life of pretense…although the season ends with quite a bang that makes Season Five a must-watch.

Some of the highlights of Season Four include a nastily refreshing turn by Oscar winner Sissy Spacek as well as Margene’s (Goodwin) inappropriate kissing of Bill’s son (who happens to be closer to her age than Bill). In addition, the continual unease of Barb (the still-terrific Tripplehorn), an absorbing gay subplot involving a key compound member (the continually creepy Matt Ross) and the unending lunacy of Bill’s mom Lois (Grace Zabriskie) keep Big Love in constant fascination motion.

The main disappointment was reducing the show from 12 episodes to 9. Whatever the reason, the pace is more frenetic and the show felt rushed.

The anamorphic transfer looks decent enough and the Dolby Digital sound mix is acceptable.

As far as Special Features, each episode has a short “Inside the Episode” clip that features quick interviews with the creators Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. More would have been welcome.

Big Love continues to push the HBO drama forward. Now let’s see how the Henricksons survive Season Five—the final season.



Steven Antin’s
Burlesque
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Written by Steven Antin

Starring: Cher, Christina Aguilera, Cam Gigandet, Eric Dane, Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Peter Gallagher

SONY PICTURES

What did not work that well on the big screen dazzles on Blu-Ray.

Not because a second viewing proves that the script isn’t awful (it is) and not because the direction is discovered to be more than fairly pedestrian (it’s not) but because the best segments of Burlesque look and sound amazing in the BD format: the musical numbers!

It’s sad that all the monies and energies that went into producing such lush, mesmerizing and entertaining musical moments could not have also gone into tweaking the script so it wasn’t so wincingly cliché’ and embarrassing predictable.

Burlesque wants desperately to be Chicago meets Cabaret. but ends up being more of a Coyote Ugly/Showgirls hybrid. Sure it has tremendous camp cache,’ but it shoulda/coulda been so much more—especially considering the caliber of talent that’s been assembled.

Firstly, you have Cher in her first lead feature role in over a decade (Tea With Mussolini in 1999 unless you count her stint in Stuck On You in 2003 which was a supporting turn). She’s such a pro that it’s hard to not appreciate her even when she’s wasted in scenes worrying about finances--ad nauseum. And really, only two musical numbers for this icon? What was Steve Antin thinking?

He was thinking: Christina Aguilera. And while she is sensational in each and every musical segment, she isn’t the most solid of actresses. To be fair, it’s really Antin’s lousy script that does her in at times, forcing her to utter the silliest lines, trying to make them not sound ridiculous.

The abysmally bland and overdone plot has Aguilera preposterously cast as an Iowan who, unable to tolerate her sad diner job, picks up and moves to the big city: Los Angeles, and happens upon an old-fashioned burlesque club on the Sunset Strip where each gal lip-syncs to songs while shaking their collective ta-tas for a lackluster audience. (This is basically a gay bar where the drag queens have been replaced by real girls).

Cher runs the club, that is losing money, and before you can say, “a star is born,” Aggie (my pet name for Christina) gets to prove she can not only dance, but also…sing! Imagine. What an original idea? Have the girls actually sing! That will bring in the dough and save the club! (Imagine trying this one at a gay bar!)

Stanley Tucci is on board to bring his brand of class to a standard and mostly sexless gay role.

There are all kinds of dopey subplots going on. The most interesting involving Cam Gigandet as a hunky bartender who wears more eye-liner than the gals but, of course, is straight--For all the heterosexuals in the audience…wait, what heterosexuals? Who was this movie made for, anyway??? The Gigandet portion of the film is only interesting because we get to see a lot of him and…he’s not a bad actor to boot.

If Antin had the courage to gay this film up, it might have been truly worthwhile, but he seems too afraid, not even bothering to put any of the cute boys into any of the musical numbers (yes, I know, that wasn’t done in the days of burlesque, but this is supposed to be a club in 2010!!!)

If you can get past all the hokey scenes and crap lines (just use the fast-forward button) you will find some splendid musical sections that make this Blu-Ray worth the price.

Both of Cher’s numbers are showstoppers, especially “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” which could be her new anthem and should have gotten an Oscar nomination (it justly won the Golden Globe).

Aggie kills it with Etta James’s “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” in the film’s opening, as well as the sultry “Bound to You.”

Actually, each time the music swelled, I turned the volume up and paid attention. The numbers put a smile on your face and make you forget the mess you are watching.

The 1080p hi-def transfer at a 2.40:1 is fabulous with splashy colors that enhance the visuals. The film is gorgeous to look at with sharp resolution and stunning art direction.

The 5.1 DTS-HD MA sound mix is absolutely extraordinary and truly astounds—particularly in the musical segments.

The Extras are fun, if overly glossy.

The best of the lot is the ‘Burlesque Jukebox,’ which boast six uncut musical numbers including an Alan Cumming-sung “That’s Life” –cut from the film--which is just wonderful! More of these would have been better than the “dialogue-driven” scenes.

An Alternate Opening Sequence is simply a longer version of “Something’s Got a Hold On Me.” The Blooper Reel is skippable unless you’re one of the cast/crew and Steven Antin’s Audio Commentary is pretty stale and dull. He’s excited enough but doesn’t really provide much insight. He does love his film, though.

Exclusive to the Blu-Ray is a five section, 33-minute group of Featurettes that are puffed-up and glorified commercials for the film but do offer some interesting background info especially describing Aggie's musical contributions. The MovieIQ track offers trivia.

The Blu-Ray package also comes with a DVD of the film.

This one’s an instant camp classic for some of the wrong reasons and a few truly spectacular ones.


 


Dallas: The Complete Fourteenth Season
DVD

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The fourteenth season was the final season for Dallas. That’s fourteen years of JR’s shenanigans.

Dallas bowed on CBS in 1978 and wasn’t a hit at all--today it would have been cancelled. But the network gave it a second chance and timeslot and it slowly built an audience and went to number one. The show broke ground as the first blockbuster nighttime soap opera of the seventies (the had Peyton Place in the 60s) where each week presented some new, exciting final-moment that would culminate in an end of season cliffhanger that would change television forever (although Soap did it as well that same “Who Shot JR? season, but not as many people were paying attention to “Who Killed Peter Campbell?”) We have come to expect cliffhangers now, especially in our “continuing” dramas.

Season 14 ran from November 1990 through May 1991 and featured more of the same manipulations and machinations fans came to expect. The season ran the gamut from the ridiculous (JRs being trapped in an asylum) to the sublime (the last episode).

In the two-part finale, Conundrum, some favorites return as JR is taken on an “It’s a Wonderful Life” type journey. It’s priceless and the final moments actually do the show justice—even though it pissed a lot of people off.

This collection contains all 23 episodes. The TV movies still have yet to be released on DVD, but it’s nice to be able to finish the Dallas episodes collection.

The video transfer is adequate as is the sound. Nothing special.

There are no Special Features offered, which is a shame since it was the last season. Still, it’s a must-own for any fan.




Films by Gordon Ball
DVD
Released December 2010

Reviewed by Peter Neofotis, New York, NY
email pgn6@columbia.edu


“First thought, best thought,“ was the artistic vision of Beat Generation writers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg - which resulted in their texts with an inspired sense of spontaneity. And it has also been this school of thought - of recording unplanned impressions - that has doubtlessly influenced Gordon Ball - an intimate student of Ginsberg - in the creation of these films, just released in DVD as The Films of Gordon Ball. However, Mr. Ball’s work has achieved an artistic purity and elegance that in many ways eluded even his mentors.

Such multi-movement mastery is most clear in his Mexican Jail Footage, in which Gordon Ball bestows upon us scenes from his time being held without charge in 1968 with 25 other gringos in the Puerto Vallarta jail with a sun-drenched courtyard. To give you an idea of the diversity of his jail mates, Mexican and Gringo, one was a one-eyed murderer. Another was a beautiful youth named John Paul “from Paris” who was arrested “near Liz Taylor’s house” nearby (perhaps appropriately, it is John Paul who - upon finding out that Gordon has a camera - provides him with the film). What then follows is a documentary of the daily jail events - sometimes mirage-like, sometimes montage-esque, always impressionistic. Indeed, the film itself - 8mm that is sometimes overlaid with flashes of light due to accidental external exposures - makes even the medium on which this work is filmed impart its vision of a sometimes haphazard, sometimes precarious, but beautiful life.

There is an appropriate yet certain irony that with all its unplanned nature or the lack of studio lighting and sound, this film by Gordon Ball achieves - more so than most any film to come out of Hollywood - a more realized vision of a youth and a certain culture where people know how to be alive and enjoy each moment. No special effects could compare to our seeing them, for example, performing yoga in the prison courtyard or kissing each other avidly through the cell bars.

Over the visuals we have the narration of Gordon Ball - unapologetic, without artifice, with no effort to push nostalgia. Just laying down the facts - in a description that sometimes literally matches the film but more often does not - a wonderful merging of traditional storytelling with the avant-guarde.

“No religions is my religion....I believe in the validity of all religions. I am interested in religious experiences and that we are all God or aspects of divinity,” he tells an interrogator (who then asks him if he’s an addicto). As often as I’ve heard people preach about their visions of God, goodness, and love, when I heard those words near the close at Gordon’s work - I believed his belief in them to be true. And in "Mexican Jail Footage" we have a vision of peace, love, and hope - of a people and time and youth that seems too much vanquished in the new digitized millennia. And as I was watched the film’s nearly final shot of a jail mate on the the beach, released at last from the Mexican Prison, I thought how wonderful that Gordon Ball had dared to take his vision all the way. How crazy. Here is a man reflecting on his youth without adornment - yet it remains beautiful, clear, and real. Whether he intended to or not, this film by Gordon Ball laments with us how sad is it that such visions of life, love, and a sense of the divinity have not been furthered; and it forces us to wonder what can we do to reincarnate such ideas in the new modern world.

There are 6 other works on Gordon Ball’s DVD, including "Eulogies on the death of his parents" and a profound first hand account of life in Poland before the era of Glasnost. An interview with the filmmaker by Tom Whiteside caps the whole anthology.

Films by Gordon Ball is distributed by Filmmakers Cooperative (New York), Canyon Cinema (San Francisco), and Re:Voir (Paris).




Aaron Tveit and James Franco in Howl

Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman’s
Howl
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Written by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

Starring: James Franco, Mary-Louise Parker, Jon Hamm, Jeff Daniels, David Strathairn, Alessandro Nivola, Treat Williams, Aaron Tveit, Bob Balaban.

The Blu-Ray Edition of Howl is a treasure trove of riches that enhance the film as well as educating the viewer on the poem, the poet and the turbulent, transmutative times that produced both and that helped forge a movement.

Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, responsible for the seminal documentaries The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet, have crafted an ambitious, quasi-docu narrative feature that only gets better with repeated viewings.

The film is like a mosaic, interspersing four specific segments-- interviews with Ginsberg as played by Franco, the trial, readings via Franco in a coffeehouse with animated sequences bringing the poem to life and moments from Ginsberg’s life shot in a home movie style. The look of the film is wonderful across the boards, with splendid camerawork by Edward Lachman and the Blu-Ray transfer is exquisite. The varying visual styles blend magnificently (even the animation). It’s a fantastic eye-popping presentation. The audio is a bit low but the mix is pretty potent.

James Franco effectively and wholly embodies poet Allen Ginsberg. His performance is absolutely compelling as he immerses himself into the time, the place, the man and the man’s groundbreaking poem.

Franco’s readings from the then-infamous, now-landmark, work are powerful and I would often close my eyes to let the words truly resonate with me. The other reason I’d close my eyes was to not have to view the surreal yet often too literal animated scenes that accompanied many of the readings. This is a misstep in an otherwise terrific film.

Ginsberg’s poem is a highly personal yet transcendent piece. It speaks to each person differently (although that can be argued about any literary work but poetry, in particular, is pretty intimate) and Franco’s interpretation is so commanding that it might have been more effective to just put the camera on the actor and have him speak (as is done in several fab coffeehouse segments).

The only other criticism I can toss at Howl is that I wanted more; more of the potent courtroom moments; more background on Ginsberg and his relationships with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and, especially, his lover Peter Orlovsky (Aaron Tveit), who is seen too briefly. And the Special Features provide much of what I was craving.

The Audio Commentary with James Franco, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Freidman is quite informative and Franco makes it fun. The three provide some fascinating insights into the making of the film and the historical significance of the poem and the obscenity trial.

The 40-minute featurettes "Holy! Holy! Holy! The Making of Howl," covers every aspect of the filmmaking process as well as giving us more about Ginsberg who “struggled to liberate himself sexually,” at a time when everyone was fairly anti-gay.

The "Directors' Research Tapes" section (28 minutes) include pertinent interviews with animator Eric Drooker, Ginsberg’s companion Peter Orlovsky, poet/musician Tuli Kupferberg, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and musician Steven Taylor.

Another treat is a 22-minute Q & A with Epstein and Freidman from the Provincetown Film Festival moderated by John Cameron Mitchell.

An amazing video of Ginsberg reading the poem (along with two others) at the Kitting Factory in 1995 is included as well as an audio-only reading by Franco. I wish they had given us a video of Franco’s recitation.

Trailers are also included.

Howl is about how language can rattle people. It was the honest, explicit nature of the poem that shocked people when it was first published in 1956. That led to an obscenity trial (this was the 1950s where everything needed to stay surface squeaky clean), which is depicted in the film, via intercut segments, with dialogue taken from the real court transcripts. The trial section features many a familiar face such as Jon Hamm (dapperly at home in a suit and tie), David Strathairn (ditto), Treat Williams, Jeff Daniels, Bob Balaban and Mary Louise-Parker—all very good.

But in the end it’s Franco’s becoming Ginsberg so effectively that anchors the pic and gives it it’s soul. Ginsberg was an openly gay man at a time when EVERYONE was in the closet. You had to be. At the time he wrote Howl, homosexuality was still considered a mental disorder and, too often, those with queer tendencies were forced to undergo electro-shock and sometimes lobotomies, to “cure” their disease. Ginsberg, himself, spent time in a mental hospital until he promised he would change.

His work captured the loneliness and alienation of a generation of artists and people who were told they were lesser humans because they were different. This appealed to both gay and straight alike. He captured the anger and restlessness of a group that felt their voices weren’t being heard; that felt they were being condemned because they didn’t fit what was considered “normal.” Ginsberg was at the forefront of a literary movement that would eventually explode into the social movements of the 1960s that would change this country forever.

Howl is a historically important recollection that deserves to be seen by anyone who cares about the first amendment.


 

 

Samuel Maoz’s
Lebanon
BLU-RAY


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Samuel Maoz has crafted an autobiographical film based on his experience in the Lebanon War of 1982 that is audacious and powerful. The entire film takes place within the confines of an armored tank during the first 24 hours of what was supposed to be a simple mission. The only view we get of what is going on outside is through what our soldiers see via the gun barrel.

The four soldiers are all in their early 20s. Shmulik (Yoav Donat), the gunner, is the Maoz’s character—who has a hard time firing when he is ordered to. Assi (Itay Tiran) is their apprehensive commander. Hertzel (Oshri Cohen) is the loader who argues every order he is given. And Yigal (Michael Moshonov), the driver, proves he isn’t the most astute of the bunch.

The mission is to clean up a bombed Lebanese village. But things go very wrong and these boys are forced to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Maoz and his Das Bootian claustrophobic camera captures the uncertainty, confusion and sheer terror felt by these soldiers on their first mission who are told by their commanding officer to “Be creative. Improvise,” in moments of peril. The statement ‘war is hell,’ easily becomes ‘war is lunacy,’ as we watch the terror on their faces and the chaos that ensues.

The Blu-Ray offers an even more intimate, ergo frightening, experience.
The visual transfer (1.78:1 aspect ratio) enhances the dark, grim photography that enables the viewer to feel the fear and paranoia as the men do.
And the 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix equally enhances the experience, blending the too-quiet silences with the bombings and giving the viewer a terrific and terrifying sense of being in the tank.

Besides the theatrical trailer, there is one other Extra, a making-of documentary titled “Notes on a War Film,” that runs 24 minutes. This feature is a pretty comprehensive account of the difficulties inherent in making such an emotionally grueling film.

Lebanon is unrelentingly grim and viscerally horrific, yet mesmerizing. It should have been Israel’s Oscar entry last year. See it.

 



Agatha Christie's
Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express
Blu-Ray

Directed by Philip Martin, Adapted by Stewart Harcourt.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Acorn Media

David Suchet has been playing Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie's most celebrated sleuth, for over two decades now so it was only natural that Christie's most celebrated novel be adapted for British television as part of the Poirot series.

Remade once before, in 2001, as a decent if cheesy TV movie, the classic mystery Murder on the Orient Express, had it's definitive adaptation in 1974 when it was masterfully directed by the great Sidney Lumet, brilliantly written by Oscar nominee Paul Dehn and starred a literal "Who's Who" of the best film and stage actors of the time.

Why tamper with perfection if you can't possibly add anything? The creators probably grappled with the question and decided they would add something--much to the anger and outrage of die-hard Christie fans. They ended up changing quite a bit of the story--certainly Poirot's motivations adding more ethical and moral shadings to the story and a religious element that was initially only hinted at. In addition, one of the possibly guilty parties was changed, another omitted completely and certain character behaviors were altered--in one case the person who was responsible for masterminding the crime was completely switched without any real reason.

Okay, so you decide to tamper with perfection, you change the structure, some of the story and the famous denouement. And you even mess with Poirot and make him a more introspective, brooding and torn man grappling with his own arrogant rigidity. And, worst sin of all, you relegate most of the passengers to near-walk-on status.

I will state, up front, that the Sidney Lumet film is one of my all-time favorites and my favorite mystery motion picture by a long shot. And Albert Finney's Poirot was a tour-de-force on every conceivable level including his sheer brilliance and confidence. So it's pretty impossible for me not to compare the two. And while I appreciate director Philip Martin and writer Stewart Harcourt wanting to shake things up, too often it seems like they choose to do so simply to do so. Still there are joys to be found in this version.

The basic plot is still there. A dozen-plus passengers depart Istanbul and head directly into a snowbank. During the journey, the most reviled of them, is brutally stabbed to death. Poirot happens to be on board and is asked by the owner of the line to solve the crime.

Lumet remarkably offset and contrasted the ghoulishness of the homicide with the pomp, glamour and splash of the passengers on board and the land-voyage itself. This version is smaller on every level, certainly grittier, a tad nastier and, oddly, quiet.

Suchet's Poirot now whispers to Pierre, "Has anything been touched," when he enters the victims compartment in direct contrast to Finney's famous order to "Pierre, touch nothing!"

Lumet opens his film with a montage about the Lindbergh-esque kidnapping of Daisy Armstrong so an important seed is planted early on about what the viewer is about to see allowing him/her to plot along and try and self-sleuth. The new version saves (and overly borrows) the Armstrong murder story for later in the film...too late for an unfamiliar audience to care as much.

And let's discuss the obvious: Lumet's cast was a veritable cornucopia of great actors from Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman to Vanessa Redgrave to John Geilgud to Lauren Bacall to Sean Connery to Richard Widmark...well, you get the idea. The acting in this version is first-rate, the problem is there are very few who are able to stand out given the brevity of their parts. Eileen Atkins fares best giving a bravura performance as the Princess Dragomiroff. Barbara Hershey and Jessica Chastain have some terrific moments. The men, not so much.

Suchet is more of a complication. While I appreciated the depth and the soul searching, his performance lacks the intensity and the self-assuredness needed to make us feel he truly is the master sleuth he is supposed to be.

This remake actually almost redeems itself in the great reveal at the end. While I still prefer Lumet's cinematically claustrophobic finale, Martin chooses to allow the passengers to aide Poirot in figuring it all out and, in doing so, we truly get a fascinating debate about right and wrong, about the law and even about God. And the very final moment is pretty striking.

Christian Henson's score is certainly rousing, but pales in comparison with Richard Rodney Bennett's sweeping and utterly delightful original. Oops, there I go again.

This is the very first Brit TV Blu-Ray release from Acorn Media and the visual results are good, although sometimes too grainy. The featurette sometimes looks better than the film. The DTS-HD Master Audio sound, however, is clear and crisp with the multi-accented dialogue mercifully audible at all times.

The main Special Feature is a 47-minute featurette romp titled "David Suchet on the Orient Express." The docu is a total delight and makes the viewer want to book passage immediately. The travelogue delves into the rich history of the train as well as it's opulence and elegance: "an elegance we don't have anymore." The special also discusses Christie's journey on the Express and how she may have gotten her ideas for the novel. And Suchet has a ball taking the famous train across Europe, even being allowed to drive it for a spell--every boy's dream.

Also included: some good reading material: "120 Years with Agatha Christie," a list of Poirot books and Cast Filmographies.

Even with the liberties taken, this Christie take would definitely make a worthy addition to your Blu-Ray library. Now, if Paramount would only remaster and release the original film on Blu-Ray, the viewer can have a ball comparing and contrasting.




Sam Taylor-Wood’s
Nowhere Boy
DVD



Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

SONY PICTURES


Nowhere Boy, a very sweet and loving portrait of the John Lennon teen years, is one of the most underrated films of 2010.

The film focuses on Lennon’s relationship with the two most important women in his life—his Aunt Mimi and his estranged mother Julia--and soars on the performances of both Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff, respectively, as well as newcomer Aaron Johnson (unrecognizable from Kick-Ass) who shows us a conflicted, driven and sexy young man who misses his mother and loves his aunt.

We are also privy to the moment when John meets Paul (an adorable Thomas Sangster) and it is handled the way it probably happened, matter-of-factly.

Apparently director Taylor-Wood was in contact with both Yoko Ono and Paul McCartney before and during filming, so what we see onscreen is funneled through the memories of those two as well as Lennon’s public statements about his early years and the filmmaker’s notions.

The moving script by Matt Greenhalgh (Control) never labors too long on the melodramatic but is more concerned with how each matriarchal figure influenced Lennon, musically and otherwise.

There are flaws. Some of the moments in the film do become a bit cliché’—especially when Lennon is forced to become enraged by Mimi or embarrassed by Julia, but Johnson handles it like it’s the most natural thing in the world.

Kristin Scott Thomas is one of cinemas greatest treasures. She’s heir apparent to the sardonic Maggie Smith roles of the future. Always betraying bits of warmth and vulnerability no matter how cold and heartless she is called on to be, Thomas’s Julia is a woman who will stop at nothing to protect the boy she raised. She may not be his biological mother but, in her heart, she is his mother.

Anne Marie-Duff’s role is trickier since she’s a bit underwritten. A free-spirit (read: loose woman) she has her own bouts with depression, but is full of joie de vivre and adores her son. Duff goes beneath the surface to find a complex woman who must fight her true sexual feelings in a time when women weren’t supposed to be sexual.

And Johnson proves he is one of the most talented finds of 2010.

Production values are above par across the boards.

The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks good enough with neatly saturated colors. The period is represented nicely.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is fantastic with the early songs overwhelming the soundtrack perfectly.

Extra Features are pretty paltry on the DVD. They include two Deleted Scenes that are nothing more than throwaways. (apparently there are more Deleted Scenes on the Blu-Ray). The 7-minute short “The Making of Nowhere Boy” has some decent interviews with the principles involved but is (say it with me) too short! Ditto the 13-minute puff piece, "Nowhere Boy: The Untold Story of John Lennon and the Creation of the Beatles."

Nowhere Boy somehow slipped through the cine-cracks in this country. It was far more celebrated in Britain where Thomas and Duff were both BAFTA nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actress and the movie itself was nommed for Outstanding British Film. Hopefully it will find a long life on DVD.


 

 


Alexandre Aja’s
Piranha 3-D
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Yikes, what a mess. Yes, I mean the film. But is it a fun, campy mess? Suffice to say, since I don’t have a 3-D HDTV, I had to evaluate Piranha 3-D based on a two-dimensional viewing and the results are mixed but it is quite enjoyable watching people get eaten alive by the way-too-computer-generated nasty-ass sea creatures. Note: Both versions (2-D, 3-D) are offered on the Blu-Ray.

The film begins with Richard Dreyfuss slumming…for a few seconds until he becomes fish food in a fun whirlpool sequence. It’s the first of many homages (rip-off moments?) to Jaws and the Jaws films. And rest assured the Alien franchise is also liberally borrowed from--which made me wonder if an Alien vs. Piranha film was in the works…God, help us. You can even find appropriated moments from some 70s disaster movies including The Poseidon Adventure!

Speaking of slumming, Elisabeth Shue, a one-time Oscar nominee for Leaving Las Vegas, is relegated to playing the fem-version of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, only with much less enthusiasm and less sex appeal. That is left for the youth—especially the female youth. There are plenty of tits and ass on display (as well as some vagina) to make teen boys squirt their collective shorts. And the 3-D boobs-in-your-face shots are also a-plenty.

A remake of sorts, this version is less of a contemporary social satire than the original and more of a satire on silly slasher films, 80s horror films, Spring Break films and killer fish films...I guess…but don’t get too excited, it’s mostly an opportunity to show different ways chewing people to shreds can be achieved…with the 3-D cam bopping about.

The barren plot has Shue the Sheriff of Lake Victoria dealing (poorly) with the onset of an attack of a prehistoric breed of piranha during Spring Break. Her teenage son (Vampire Diaries’ Steven R. McQueen—yes grandson of Steve) has been hired to help a Girls Gone Wild-type filmmaker (Jerry O’Connell) scout locations…and ass. Pretty soon the fish attack—everyone…well, almost everyone. You can guess instantly who survives: the duller-than-dirt McQueen, the painfully-dull Jessica Szohr (as if her tepid turn on Gossip Girl wasn’t bad enough) and, the two annoying kids. Typical. God forbid we rid the world of brats.

Okay on to the technical aspects—which actually rock and are the main reason to get this Blu-Ray.

The 1080p/AVC-MPEG4 transfer (aspect ratio: 2.40:1) looks really good. Great colors (among other things) popping. The only prob is that with such a good transfer, the effects, the fish in particular, look a bit hokey. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is awesome. No complaints.

The Special Features offered on this Blu-Ray are an embarrassment of riches. One should get this type of treasure trove all the time.

Firstly, the audio commentary with Aja and producer Gregory Levasseur is nutty and frank and sometimes difficult to hear because of the accents, but definitely entertaining.

The film itself is 90 minutes long yet there is a comprehensive 129- minute Making-of documentary called ‘Don’t Scream, Just Swim.” Every bloody (pun intended) aspect of the filmmaking experience is here and then some. It’s a dream for any fan of the film and actually interesting to watch for those of us not quite as turned on to the magic of P-3.

Some rightfully removed Deleted Scenes are featured (7-plus minutes) as well as Deleted Storyboard Sequences (11 min.) and the trailer and TV spots.

You gotta have a yen for the splattertastic to truly enjoy a film like this. If you do, have a piranha party!


Rob Williams’s
Role/Play
DVD

Starring: Steve Callahan; Matthew Montgomery; David Pevsner; Brian Nolan; Matthew Stephen Herrick; and Jim J. Bullock.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Viewing the new DVD of Rob Williams festival hit Role/Play, I was struck by how much more visual the film seemed on the small screen. This is a film with a whole lot of dialogue and, when I first saw it, it felt as if a terrific stage play was trying to break out of the frame. For some odd reason, watching the gorgeous DVD on a high def TV made the experience quite cinematic.

Rob Williams is a proud gay filmmaker who has something to say. Imagine! He features hot, hunky actors naked and sneaking in lots of smart dialogue that comments on current gay culture. He then sets the film in a remote, gorgeous Palm Springs resort that acts as a hideaway for gays—out and not-so-out--and presto: audiences are given the perfect package, so to speak.

Steve Callahan plays Graham Windsor, a soap actor who is in crisis because someone recently leaked a revealing sex tape online where he’s seen receiving some love a’ la’ Dustin Lance Black, consequently he is fired from the network due to their ‘morals clause.’

Matthew Montgomery is Trey Reed, marriage-equality activist extraordinaire who has arrived to flee the nasty publicity surrounding his impending divorce.

Graham and Trey verbally spar—each presenting their often-polarizing sides on important topics such as closeted actors coming out as well as how far gay activists have a right to go in outing someone. As the debates intensify, so does the chemistry between the two guys, resulting in a passionate romance.

Role/Play asks pertinent questions like whether the public has a right to know about people’s private lives and the role of the press in keeping actors in the closet. Williams also takes on the gay press for building up certain figures only to enjoy tearing them down the minute they fall from grace, but the dialogue never feels didactic. In addition, Williams tosses in quite a few veiled references to real life figures that savvy viewers will have lots of fun with.

As stated earlier we get to see both actors perfectly buff bodies as well as their bubble butts. There’s a whole lot of ass on display in this film and Williams, in
his Audio Commentary, takes every opportunity to point each butt shot
out. The notion of narcissistic doubling and the superficiality seemingly inherent in gay dating is also touched upon making the nudity important and not just ass-candy. But the second viewing made me wonder if the guys were a bit too perfect looking. Graham needs to be since he’s a soap star. But a buff activist with a perfect ass? I guess they exist, but it would have been nice to see a more realistic body. (OK, I contradict myself because we all know that most gay men desire perfect bodies onscreen!)

I was still disappointed in the plot machinations in the final quarter of the film where things became a bit too preachy and moralistic. Williams creates such wonderfully flawed characters--a couple of compromised souls--that to have them decide to do so many of the “right” things in the end, seems silly and unnecessary, feeding into the exact things Williams rails against for most of the movie. But his heart is certainly in the right place.

The visual transfer is fantastic and preserves Ruben F. Russ’s gorgeous cinematography. And the sound mix is very good in this dialogue-important work.

Most of the Special Features disappoint. We get a 15-minute short “Getting Into Character: The Making of Role/Play” which is amateurishly made (background noise is downright irritating) and mostly features the actors talking about who they portrayed. Williams is noticeably absent. The 8 minutes of Bloopers/Outtakes are probably funny to the cast and crew, but not to the viewer. There are two Role/Play trailers included as well.

The one treat is the Audio Commentary by Williams where he does a wonderful job of telling interesting anecdotes about filming and working with the actors, not to mention the ass-spotting. It’s definitely worth a listen.

Role/Play is a clever and well-acted romantic drama. Williams makes films about “the gay experience.” And they provoke and challenge. I look forward to seeing what he does next.


 


David Fincher’s
The Social Network
BLU-RAY

 


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
SONY


The best film of 2011 has just been released via a stunning 2-disc Collector’s Edition Blu-Ray (as well as DVD) and the results provide a feast for those of us who feel this film represents a milestone in cinema history—certainly recent cinema history.

The Social Network truly captures a cultural timeshift as it is actually happening—no small feat—and watching this phenomenal Blu-Ray edition, the audience gets a rare treat inside all aspects of the creation of this extraordinary cinematic achievement.

Firstly there’s the film itself, which has been given a splendid visual transfer from its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Shot on RED digital cam, the Blu-Ray captures the dark shadows of the outdoor (faux) Harvard sequences magnificently as well as the indoor scenes. In particular, the Henley Regatta rowing segment looks fantastic.

Audio-wise, The DTS-HD Master Audio Track features the perfect narrative score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Rose while the dialogue sounds crisp and clear, when David Fincher wants it to.

The attention to detail for this release is beyond impressive.

The opening scene in this intoxicating film should be required viewing for all future filmmakers. In five minutes (apparently nine pages according to Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin), the groundwork is laid for the entire story. We are introduced to Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) and his girlfriend, Erica (the terrific Rooney Mara) as they verbally spar and go from lovers to ex’s as Erica decides she can no longer tolerate Mark’s arrogance and condescension (he brags about getting a 1600 on his SATs, then the highest score possible). Ego bruised, Mark returns to his dorm at Harvard University and sets a chain of events in motion that will change a generation’s way of socially networking with one another. It’s the beginning of the Facebook generation where everyone interacts through emails, websites and texts, oh my! The horror, the horror.

A lot of the Extras—via the two commentary tracks as well as the Making-of Doc—focus on this astounding scene where Fincher’s unrelenting attention to detail is exposed as well as his sheer, exhaustive perfectionism--he shot 99 takes but refused to do number 100 (according to Sorkin).

“They came up with an idea, I had a better one,” charges Zuckerberg in one of two courtroom lawsuit scenes that frame the film (he is eventually sued by the Winklevi as well as Saverin).

One of the great ironies of the film and Zuckerberg (as he is presented) is that this great social network was created by one of the most anti-social people in existence. Here is someone who, had he not been at the helm of Facebook, would probably be someone with few, if any, Facebook friends!

Of course, what Facebook really means comes into play here as well. It can be argued that the new technology has created a generation of social retards…but is the opposite true? Have a handful of socially retarded individuals (regardless of intelligence) created a technology that protects them from pain and rejection?
The Social Network boasts the best acting ensemble of the year and that is highly evident in repeated viewings of the film.

Jesse Eisenberg plays Mark as cool, pompous and apathetic. Many times he isn’t even paying attention to people that are speaking to him. But because of that first scene we carry with us the realization that a lover scorned him and most of his nastiness comes from that humiliation. Mark can easily be dismissed as an obnoxious asshole, but Eisenberg won’t let us off that easy. It’s a fascinating performance and his character actually becomes more and more sympathetic with repeated viewings--a fact that I’d bet Eisenberg would not like based on his musings on the discs. “I just didn’t like him being happy,” is just one of the many psychoanalytically distraught character conveyances.

Andrew Garfield is slowly becoming one of the best actors of his generation (Boy A, Lions for Lambs, Never Let Me Go, The Red Riding Trilogy). His Eduardo is a good guy caught up in a world where good guys are eaten alive. The scene where he confronts Mark after the ultimate betrayal shows Garfield at his best. He may be nice and accepting, but when he’s crossed, look out!

Justin Timberlake has a blast embodying Napster founder and player-extraordinaire Sean Parker. Rooney Mara makes quite an impression in very few scenes. And Armie Hammer excels as both Winklevoss twins—in a masterful performance that Hammer (who excitedly calls playing both twins “a wet dream”), stand-in actor Josh Pence and the magic of digital insertion are all responsible for. The Extras go into detail about exactly how these performances were created….

So on to the Extras:

The best of a host of bests is the 93-minute, four-part documentary “How Did They Ever Make a Movie of Facebook?” This fact-filled delight is not a puff piece but a real look inside the making of the film where a great deal of time and effort was put into Fincher getting the script to a place where he felt each word was justified. Once it was locked in, thought, there was no room for improvising. The cast had three weeks of rehearsal (a luxury today) and we see Fincher immersed in his work with the actors and production team.

I do have one MAJOR complaint about the docu. Why the hell was the profanity bleeped out? The film is filled with profanity so why muck up the Special features with bleeps? I doubt Fincher would have approved. It’s annoying and takes away from the power of what is being said.

In "Jeff Cronenweith and David Fincher on the Visuals," an eight-minute featurette, we learn just how uncooperative Harvard was in the making of the movie.

"Angus Wall, Kirk Baxter and Ren Klyce on Post" (17-min.) gives us fab insight into the importance of editing and sound mixing.

"Trent Reznor, Atticus Rose and David Fincher on the Score” is a nineteen-minute feature that explores the challenges of scoring a dialogue-driven motion picture.

"Swarmatron" is a 4-minute clip about the musical circuit board used.

"In the Hall of the Mountain King: Music Exploration" and "Ruby Skye VIP Room: Multi-Angle Scene Breakdown" both show different compositions/angles (respectively) used. Both are fascinating studies.

In addition to the cornucopia above, there are two Audio Commentary Tracks. The first is with the master David Fincher where he honestly takes us through the film and offers insights into the decisions he made. Though some of the same material is covered in the docu, it’s definitely worth a listen as we get to creep into the mind of a true filmic genius.

The second track is a moshing of thoughts from Aaron Sorkin, Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Armie Hammer and Josh Pence. It’s definitely worth a listen as Sorkin discusses why 99 takes were necessary for the first scene (“to casualize the language”) as well as giving many other screenwriter insights. We also get more of Eisenberg’s insecurities in his therapeutic delving into his portrayal.

The Social Network is a must-see for movie-lovers and this Blu-Ray edition is a must-own for anyone who cares about the medium.


Amir Bar-Lev’s
The Tillman Story



DVD Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

How The Tillman Story failed to be Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary Feature is one of those conundrum blunders the Academy needs to take a long hard look at.

Narrated by Josh Brolin, the film is a gripping and engrossing story of heroism, patriotism and deception that attempts to unravel the mystery behind the death of NFL player Pat Tillman who, in the wake of September 11th, enlisted in the army and was killed by friendly fire in 2004.

Most of Pat’s family, with one very notable exception, recount the story of who Pat was and how the media and the government tried to make his death into a symbol of war heroism—reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers: “They chose the wrong family…”

This particular family relentlessly pursued the truth about what happened to their son and they are to be applauded for not simply accepting what they were being fed and shutting up.

I don’t want to say too much about what the family discovers and the pieces they are forced to put together themselves—suffice to comment that it’s a hair-raising and angering saga where those responsible rarely admit accountability and are not necessarily brought to justice.

In a key scene at Pat’s memorial, after many appropriately maudlin and religiously-laced speeches, Pat’s younger brother Richard gets up and profanely offers that Pat didn’t believe in God. It’s a raw and honest moment; one I’m sure the politicos weren’t comfortable with.

Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, the DVD looks decent enough. This type of documentary isn’t supposed to be visually dazzling. It is edited in a very effective manner.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track works well for a heavily-dialogued film.

There is one Special Feature: an informative director commentary where Bar-Lev explains what the original title of the film was and why it had to be changed. He seemed fine with the alteration. After viewing the DVD, I felt the initial title was far more appropriate. Hell, the Academy failed to nominate this gem anyway. The original title would have assured it notoriety and it would have been more of a fitting tribute to a complicated boy who, like so many of us, trusted our President and leaders to do the right thing after 9/11—only to be betrayed.

Pat Tillman was betrayed three times over.


 


Oliver Stone’s
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
BLU-RAY



Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

What is it with the haters? Is bashing Oliver Stone that much fun even when it’s wholly unwarranted? Probably. Why? Because he puts forth fascinating theories and makes them cinematic. Because he dares to be heavy-handed instead of deathly subtle. Because he takes on daring themes and has the audacity to push the envelope—even when it’s uncomfortable.

What I find fascinating about the divided response to Stone’s gripping and intricate “sequel” to 1987’s Wall Street is how so many of the geek/newbie critics (really mostly bloggers calling themselves critics) put forth the revisionist notion that Wall Street was somehow universally well-received and revered when it was released. It wasn’t. Not by a long shot. Stone’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning Platoon divided critics back then. It was the character of Gordon Gekko who received all the attention. And over the years he has taken on a mythical, heroic stature—which even Stone is puzzled by since Gekko represented everything that was wrong with the financial world back then and, especially, now.

Twenty-three years after Wall Street hit the screens, Stone returns to the world where “Greed is Good,” and tries to explain that greed/Gekko has managed to muck up our entire financial system. This dazzling and dynamic film could not have come at a more fitting time and yet it has been unjustly maligned, mostly because Stone has the gall to focus on a father/daughter relationship and find hope instead of futility. Damn him to hell. And whether the conclusion feels contrived or enlightening (and I don’t see it that black and white) the merits of the film should be acknowledged.

The original Wall Street perfectly represented the Reagan 80s where indulgence and excess ruled the day. The type of greed that ran rampant into the 90s would inevitably cause a crash that would be felt around the world. Ironically, after the 2008 disaster, the current administration has spent a buttload of money bailing out the arrogant, avaricious banker bigwigs who caused the mess in the first place. Gekko in 2010: “Greed is good. Now, it seems, it’s legal.”

The movie’s plot involves Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) who is dating a young trader named Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Despite his financial success, Jake believes in alternative energy. Winnie is the author of a liberal blog. Jake is mentored by Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) who is set up for a fall by a rival (James Brolin) and Zabel steps in front of an oncoming subway train (to which someone insightfully remarks: “No one else in the market had the balls to commit suicide.”)

Meanwhile, Jake has met Gekko at a book signing (the title of his masterwork: “Is Greed Good?”) Jake offers to try to smooth things between him and his daughter. Gekko gives Jake some keen advice on how to get revenge for his mentor’s demise. And the plot twists and turns as a worn, but eager Gekko gets his moxie back and begins his return.

Oliver Stone along with Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff, have designed a screenplay that percolates with all the current goings-on in the economic news, while weaving a compelling tale of ethics and morals gone to hell. Stone is on fire using his funky directorial style to explore what is happening just outside the main focus. The camera work (by Rodrigo Prieto) is fantastic and truly pops on Blu-Ray. David Brenner and Julie Monroe’s fulgurated editing is to be commended as well.

Shia LaBeouf nicely balances his characters ambition with his desire for revenge as well as his truly wanting to make a difference.

Carey Mulligan is so real, even in an underwritten role. Her talents are never more evident than in the final moment with Douglas where she conveys so much without saying one word—showing us the difficult grays—not exactly what you’d expect.

Michael Douglas gets to do what few actors are ever able to do, reflect on the decisions his character made two decades ago and proceed accordingly. Douglasis the star of this film and justly received a Golden Globe nomination.

Josh Brolin is wonderfully slimy and nasty. Susan Sarandon, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach and John Buffalo Mailer are all uniformly terrific as is Charlie Sheen in a clever cameo.

The AVC encoded image (2.35:1 aspect ratio) looks amazing in high definition. All the pyrotechnic camerawork dazzles on Blu-Ray while the New York City visuals make you feel a part of the mad-frenzy of the one of the greatest and most maddening cities in the world.

The 5.1 DTS-HD sound mix is dialogue-friendly (in a dialogue-driven film) and the background noises are just right, as is the perfectly chosen music mix.

This Special Edition Blu-Ray (with Digital Copy) boasts a bunch of marvelous Special Features beginning with Stone’s Audio Commentary (he also does commentary on the Deleted Scenes). Love or loathe him, Stone always offers incredibly honest and forthcoming explorations of every aspect of his films. He’s a brilliant, opinionated, remarkable filmmaker with his assured ability to truly delve into his own work and he doesn’t let us down on this disc. His insightful thoughts are a film lover’s wet dream as he examines the filmic construction of his movie as well as analyze shots and offer notions on why he chose to make it. He calls this film his “love letter to New York.”

The 15-minute featurettes “A Conversation with Oliver Stone and the Cast,” is just that—although Mulligan remains mostly quiet. Here we feel the camaraderie of the cast and the very intelligent Brolin shows off his financial knowledge.

"Money, Money, Money: The Rise and Fall of Wall Street,” runs a nice 50 minutes and is a pretty comprehensive look back on the 1987 film. Here Stone comments that he never thought Gekko was a role model of any sort. We also get musings on the pre-internet world of Wall Street and how we failed to learn the lessons of the past. Stone: “We’re a society that’s fallen too much in love with money.” Truer and sadder words have never been spoken.

The Deleted and Extended scenes run 29 minutes and include Frank Langella’s early demise (moved to later in the film) as well as some fun cameos by Monique Van Vooren and Donald Trump in a self-mocking barbershop scene with Gekko. In addition, we get more Sylvia Miles, which is either good or not so good depending on your Sylvia Miles threshold.

There is also a decent actor profile titled: “Fox Movie Channel Presents In Character with...” This 26-minute show provides interviews with Douglas, Mulligan, LeBeouf, Brolin and Langella. For fans, it’s a nice cherry.

Also included: the teaser and theatrical trailers.

Kudos to Fox for delivering a Blu-Ray worthy of Stone’s hard work and kudos to Stone for crafting a provocative film that isn’t afraid to show us who the real villains of the 2008 crash really are and do so in a highly entertaining manner.



Woody Allen’s
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
BLU-RAY


Luckily, there’s Midnight in Paris to look forward to later in 2011. =

 

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Woody Allen is one of my favorite film directors. He always has been. He always will be. His films speak to me in ways no others seem to. Growing up with Woody, I felt he confronted so many of the questions I had about life, death, relationships, ethics, morals, New York City…and he did it all with the most penetrating yet hilarious dialogue. I loved all Woody: ‘the early, funnier films’ (Sleeper, Love and Death, Bananas, Take the Money and Run); the gems that seemed to have it all (Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway) as well as the more serious, biting and nastier movies (Husbands and Wives, Stardust Memories, Celebrity, Deconstructing Harry).

Why this nebbish capture my imagination is bizarre to say the least since I grew up Italian-Catholic (most of the Italians in Woody’s films are mobsters or dumb-ass wop stereotypes) and I ultimately figured out I was gay (I believe there was one gay character in a Woody Allen film and if you blinked you missed him). The reason is simple, though, his films are universal. He asks the questions we all ask. He probes the themes that keep all of us up at night and he usually does it in an exceptional and thought-provoking way.

And while some of his new millennium films aren’t exactly classics, he’s given us three more that prove he is no where near done (Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona—all filmed in Europe).

When I first saw You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger last year I was disappointed. Not in a Curse of the Jade Scorpion Way (still the only lousy Woody film) but because I had such high hopes. An amazing cast and Woody in Britain again had to be something special. Alas, it felt more like recycled Woody with English accents.

Seeing it again on the stunning new Blu-Ray transfer, I appreciated it a lot more but it still felt a bit stale. Regardless, Woody appropriating from himself is often better than most original films.

The movie opens with the Shakespeare quote: “Life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Thus begins another meditation on whether luck is the driving force in our lives or whether there is something else at play.

Josh Brolin plays, Roy, a writer who had one success and has been struggling to prove he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder. (Sound familiar?) He is married to a shrewish Sally (Naomi Watts) who works at an art gallery and takes her unhappiness out on her husband. Sally’s mother, Helena (the wonderful Gemma Jones), helps support them and visits a psychic (Pauline Collins) regularly and religiously follows her advice.

Helena is recently divorced from Alfie (Anthony Hopkins, taking on another Allen alter ego) who longs to be young again and has shacked up with a gold-digging tart (Lucy Punch).

Roy begins falling for a seductive young neighbor (Frieda Pinto). Sally crushes on her boss (Antonio Banderas) and Alfie discovers painful truths about his new wife as well as himself.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the film is Woody’s lack of imagination when it comes to weaving the plot together. For instance, Roy’s third act decision is fascinating yet Woody doesn’t follow through and show us the consequences of his actions. And Alfie’s discovery is so predictable and antiquated it could have been written for a character in 1957.

One of the most irritating flaws in the film is Allen’s insistence on using a narrator. It’s obtrusive, superfluous, often-redundant and reeks of indolence.

Visually the AVC encoded (1.78:1 aspect ratio) presentation is a feast for the eyes with popping colors. The London locales look so inviting you’ll want to visit and the interiors truly enhance the films first-rate art direction and set decoration.

The 3.1 DTS-HD sound mix is clear and crisp preserving the classic
Allen dialogue.

As with all Woody Allen films on DVD and Blu-Ray there are no extras except the original theatrical trailer.

Woody Allen continues to make interesting and compelling films, working with the best tech people and assembling the greatest actors of stage and screen. I just wish he would move out of his comfort zone and give us a wider variety of themes and some new characters arcs.Luckily, there’s Midnight in Paris to look forward to later in 2011.


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