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Danny Boyle’s
127 Hours
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Written by Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, based on the book Between a Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston.

Starring: James Franco, Kata Mara, Amber Tamblyn, Clemence Poesy, Treat Williams, Kate Burton.

20th Century Fox

Absorbing 127 Hours, via Fox’s dynamic Blu-Ray offering, it becomes obvious why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences felt compelled to nominate it for Best Picture. It was in my top ten of 2010 but I wasn’t certain AMPAS would get on board. On a second, high-def viewing, I realized there was no way they could overlook this original and soul-searing gem.

Danny Boyle, along with his Slumdog Millionaire team, takes an unfilmable book with no real plot and does the impossible: they creates 90-minutes of compelling, tension-driven cinema almost inventing a new way to tell a story onscreen.

And James Franco must be given equal credit.

To call 127 Hours a visceral experience is accurate but it is much more than that. It’s an assault on all the senses, in the best of ways. Boyle, his fellow screenwriter Simon Beaufoy and Franco allow us into the mind, body and spirit of the vibrant and energetic Aron Ralston as we witness his all-encompassing will to live in the face of the worst odds a person can have heaped on them. And the ride on Blu-Ray makes the film even more thrilling.

The film opens with split screen effects showing Ralston prepping for his trip set to Free Blood’s “Never Hear Surf Music Again.’ We are visually assaulted by images giving us a good idea of who this adrenaline junkie is and the visual dazzle continues until Ralston falls down a canyon where a large rock crushes his right arm against the cavern wall, lodging him there with no way to get loose.

Boyle then takes us inside the head of Ralston through the grueling, gripping, sometimes amusing 127 hours—all through the use of video diaries (which Ralston really shot), flashbacks and Ralston’s nutty imagination. Throughout Ralston never fully gives up, nor do we.

James Franco is a revelation, completely embodying Ralston and making him so likable that we wait, with intense fascination, on his every move and keep hoping, with anxiety-ridden focus, that someone finds him or he finds a way to break free. When he does, the scene is at once gruesome and exhilarating.

The video transfer is eye-poppingly spectacular--vivid to a fault with the kind of visual clarity that makes Blu-Ray the way to go. The multi-cam use works nicely with the distinctly different resolutions blending to create the frenetic frenzy in the early sequences.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is erratic when it should be and clear and crisp at other times--the perfect mix.

The Blu-Ray offers a host of joyous Special Features.

Firstly, the energetic Audio Commentary by director Danny Boyle, producer Christian Colson, and co-writer Simon Beaufoy, provides loads of informative tidbits and gives Franco the credit he deserves as a true collaborator--of course hearing from him and Ralston would have been additional treats. Perhaps on the 10th Anniversary Edition!

There are six fascinating Deleted Scenes and an Alternate Ending that is a must-watch. I understand cutting most of it—although I am so happy I got to see it—but I would have kept the amazing hospital moment with Kate Burton at Franco’s side. These total 34 minutes.

Two featurettes include: ‘Search and Destroy,’ 14 minutes of Ralston’s real rescue story and ‘127 Hours: An Extraordinary View,’ a captivating 33-minute docu capturing Boyle, Franco and the team at work.

An unexpected treat is the inclusion of the Oscar-winning short God of Love--an absolute delight.

The BD-Live function boasts a Conversation with James Franco. A Digital Copy is also included with the Blu-Ray.

127 Hours is Danny Boyle’s best film and most certainly James Franco’s defining performance to date (forget the Oscar hosting gig quick!). It deserves to be seen. Hopefully home viewers will seek it out on DVD and Blu-Ray.



Tom Hooper’s
The King’s Speech
BLU-RAY

Original Screenplay by David Seidler

Starring: Colin Firth, Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, Claire Bloom, Anthony Andrews, Jennifer Ehle, Timothy Spall, Michael Gambon, Derek Jacobi, Eve Best.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Anchor Bay

Much has been written about The King’s Speech, winner of four Academy Awards including Best Picture of 2010. It ranked fourth on my favorite films list from the past year, yet I was a cheerleader for a more progressive and original work to win: The Social Network.

But I am not here to discuss AMPAS politics and film history, I am here to write about the new Blu-Ray edition, which is masterfully done with nice extras as well as a very informative commentary track by Tom Hooper (whether his Oscar win was just or not, he is a talent in his own right and quite a perspicacious chap).

Watching the film a second time it felt a bit slight and less meaty on an historical level. Yet, that is arguably one of its boons.It tells a simple story and truly delves into the “Bro-mance” between Bertie, who will soon go on to become King George VI, and his speech therapist. The oddest of bonds form between these unlikely “friends” and we become privy to a fascinating relationship as Bertie triumphs over his own childhood adversities and Lionel Logue finds self-esteem and a lifelong ally.

This thoroughly entertaining costume drama is set on the eve of one of the most harrowing times in British history and could have been epic if the scope had necessitated truly diving into the milieu of the coming war, but that would have been miniseries territory. Hooper and Seidler narrow the story and allow the magnificent ensemble of actors the space to do what they do best.

What sets The King’s Speech apart from typical ‘royal’ depictions is in it humanization of the monarchical figure, played with the perfect blend of angst, strength and vulnerability by Colin Firth, who justly won the Oscar. It’s a towering performance that anchors the film and gives it grace and nuance. Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter and Guy Pearce provide regal support. Carter, in particular does everything right. It’s not a dazzling, scene-stealing turn—she is there to support and that is what she does splendidly.

It’s easy to see how audiences relate to this film. It truly is a British Rocky in the sense that you root for Bertie to overcome his demons. And it’s in the last quarter that the film truly takes flight since everything leads to the all-important finale.

The video transfer (1080p/AVC MPEG-4) preserves the 1.78:1 aspect ratio and is striking in its blend of the vibrant with the bleak. Glorious in its murkiness, the film’s subdued production values are period perfect and the Blu-Ray edition is faithful to the look and style seen in theatres.

The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix impresses not only in capturing the lovely score but in bringing the viewer into Bertie’s psyche as the final speech is delivered.

The Bonus Materials, presented in Hi-Def and Standard Def are pretty good, if sparse. The best is Hooper’s Audio Commentary where any question of him not being a director who knows his stuff is put to rest.

The Making-Of docu, “An Inspirational Story of an Unlikely Friendship,” is decent if too-short (23 minutes) and provides the standard talking heads waxing about the experience.

‘Q&A With The Director & The Cast,’ is, again, too short (22-min) but gives each cast member (except an oddly absent Rush) the chance to tell a story.

“Speeches From The Real King George IV,” is a must for history buffs. We get a radio broadcast of the original speech and Newsreel footage of a post-war speech.

A 10-minute feature: “The Real Lionel Logue Highlights,” boasts interviews with Logue’s grandson.

Finally, there is a 1-min. PSA from the Stuttering Foundation.

The King’s Speech explores just how important perception is to being a successful Monarch--ergo the need to preserve the way the King is viewed being paramount for him to have the respect necessary to earn the right to the crown. In the film’s exploration of these often untouched themes as well as Firth’s astonishing embodiment of this troubled man lay the reason this film rises above traditional fare.


 


Nigel Cole’s
Made in Dagenham
BLU-RAY
Release Date - March 28, 2011


Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Sony

Made in Dagenham is a most welcome throwback to the Sally Field/Jane Fonda/Sissy Spacek films of the late 70s/early 80s where the naïve working class gal-turned-feminist heroine fights the powers-that-be and triumphs.

Based on an amazingly true story of 187 women who, quite literally, changed the pay scale for women all over the world, Dagenham can be a bit too formulaic but is always compelling thanks to it’s talented ensemble.

In 1968, the women working at the Dagenham Ford Motor factory surprised management by going out on strike and not returning to work until their demands were met. This act of bravery led to the Equal Pay Act of 1970 in Britain, which had ripples throughout the free world. The movie tells the story of how these women, who had no real intention of making history, but were simply asking to be taken seriously, found the strength to fight a roaring lion like the Ford Motor Company.

At the story’s center is Rita O’Grady, wife and mother, who--like Norma Rae, discovers her voice through outrage at the way she is being treated and digs in her heels for the long haul.

Sally Hawkins plays Rita with the right mix of spunk, apprehension and pride. Her defining scene is a confrontation with her husband (Daniel Mays) who has had it with her newfound strength and offers that he’s been patient and has never cheated or struck her or the kids. Her reply, “That’s as it should be,” is done with masterful incredulity and is a reminder of just how badly women were treated not so many years ago.

Rosemund Pike is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses. She shines brightly and, in a scene with Hawkins where she explains the way her husband humiliates her, is truly sublime.

Miranda Richardson, a cinema-treasure, plays Secretary of State Barbara Castle, with such steely Thatcher-esque verve; it’s hard to fathom how she was overlooked for an Oscar nomination.

The sets and costumes are period perfect and, among the gents, Bob Hoskins is a delight as the only man on the side of the ladies.

The title song is a Dusty Springfield-esque inspirational dittie sung defiantly by Sandie Shaw--again, reminiscent of work from the late 70s.

The film looks lovely on Blu-Ray. The 2.35:1 video transfer maintains the mod-60s visuals while the English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio gives no cause for complaints.

The Extras are a bit disappointing. The best is the Audio Commentary with Nigel Cole where he discusses, in depth, the process of making the film, working with the actors and gives historical info as well.

The 13-minute, “Making of Made in Dagenham,” is a splendid piece but way too short. With such talent being interviewed this feature should have and could have been an hour at least!

Seven minutes of Deleted Scenes are mostly throwaways except for two gems: a scene between Hawkins and Mays as well as an important moment with Richardson and the ladies—which was understandably cut for redundancy reasons—but is nice to see.

Two minutes of silly outtakes and the Trailer are also on the Blu-Ray.

Made in Dagenham is a sometimes predictable, wonderfully acted feature. It is also a well-crafted chronicle of an important yet overlooked event in recent history.



The Norman Conquests
DVD

Written by Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Herbert Wise

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Acorn Media


Emmy nominated in 1978 for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series, Alan Ayckbourn's very British, very funny, thoroughly engrossing trilogy, The Norman Conquests, finally arrives on DVD.

Basically a 'filmed' play, Ayckbourn's work features a splendid ensemble of actors giving us more and more glimpses into their hearts and minds as the drama unfolds. The direction by Herbert Wise (I, Claudius) is first-rate, if not overly inspired.

Originally made for British television in 1977, the 3-part, 5-hour film keeps the play's structure intact: each episode depicting the same characters over the same weekend in three distinctly different areas of a house.

The first, Table Manners, showcases Ayckbourn's witty, snappy dialogue best and sets up the basic plot which has Norman (Tom Conti) about to embark on a romantic rendezvous with his sister-in-law Annie (Penelope Wilton), who lives with her demanding, sickly mother--who we never see. Annie's easy-going brother Reg (Richard Briers) arrives with his nosey nag of a wife, Sarah (Penelope Keith) to care for mother while Annie goes away.

An uncertain Annie makes the mistake of telling Sarah about what she's about to do and all English hell breaks loose. By Sunday, Norman's embittered wife Ruth (Fiona Walker) who is Annie and Reg's sister, arrives and things get very nasty and wicked and revealing. Annie's shy and ineffectual suitor Tom (David Troughton) is also on hand and the butt of many of Norman's jokes.

Part Two, Round and Round the Garden, essentially brings everyone out into, well, the garden and the third installment, Living Together, places the cast in the Living Room for some wonderful final moments.

The visual and audio qualities of this DVD don't matter as much as the fact that it's actually, finally available. It's like a time-capsule treasure that, despite its look (yellowy and faded) and sound (mediocre at times), thrill the viewer simply because he/she is able to experience it.

Ayckbourn's dialogue is sharp and clever (referring to stale biscuits: "They threw themselves off the table in desperation.") and two scenes in particular are downright sidesplitting. The first involves the gaggle arguing over seating placement in Table Manners and the second where the gang attempts to play a board game in Living Together. Ayckbourn's writing may be sardonic but it's also quite honest.

The entire cast is to be commended starting with a very hairy Tom Conti who looks like a Brit-hippie version of Al Pacino in Serpico. His Norman is a lovable cad who can't help wanting to shag each and every woman around. Penelope Wilton gives us a confused, lonely and impatient woman forced to care for her mother and stuck with a clueless buffoon of a beau. My favorite performance is given by Fiona Walker who can be castratingly cutting in one moment and capitulate to true feelings of love and compassion in the next. The Norman/Ruth relationship is as intriguing as it is maddening.

The work was written as three stand-alone pieces but work best when seen together.

The only Extras: a short, written biography of the playwright and a brief trilogy backstory. More would have been nice. Imagine interviews with the cast all these years later?

In 2009, the plays were resuscitated on Broadway and done in rep. It won the Tony for Best Revival. I was fortunate enough to see Round and Round the Garden, but I always regretted not seeing it’s brackets. Thanks to Acorn’s DVD release, I was able to finally enjoy all three together.

 




Peter Tewksbury’s
Sunday in New York
DVD

Reviewed by
Frank J. Avella

Warner Archives
Original film release date: 1964


Before her groundbreaking performance in 1969’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which would garner her the first of seven Oscar nominations and solidify her as one of the greatest screen actresses of her time, Jane Fonda appeared in a slew of silly sex comedies throughout the 1960s.

Some of Fonda’s early work like Tall Story, Period of Adjustment, Any Wednesday and Barefoot in the Park were film adaptations of stage plays that acted as tame teasers, casting her as the ingénue on the verge of losing her virginity or trying to live a moral life or something close to that. To her credit she was also taking on meatier, more shocking work like the nasty hooking in Walk on the Wild Side, the frigid wife in the controversial George Cukor film The Chapman Report (which still has not been released on DVD) and the faithless wife in Arthur Penn’s underrated The Chase.

Sunday in New York, finally available on DVD via the Warner Archives treatment, is a stellar example of the former.

Based on the Broadway play by Norman Krasna (adaptation by Krasna), Sunday boasts a beautiful Fonda as Eileen, a virtuous gal who flees Albany to seek advice from her airline pilot brother (Cliff Robertson) about whether she should give in to her boyfriend’s advances. While on a bus she meets Mike (Rod Taylor) and before you can say situation comedy, her boyfriend discovers the two of them in nothing but robes. How shocking! For 1964, yes. Well, not really. But for 1964 Hollywood cinema, yes.

Our country’s mores were changing quickly, but it has always taken Hollywood a while to catch up. By the end of the 1960s, a film like this would have been laughed off the screen, but in 1964 it was still what ruled the day. So contextualizing…

The film is funny enough in it’s sitcom-y way and the innuendo can be a treat. The movie’s NYC locations are wonderfully filmed and the catchy jazz score by Peter Nero (who has a small cameo) soars.

What makes the picture a true pleasure to watch is Fonda’s performance. As the trailer boasts she is indeed, “delightfully daffy,” and shows some signs of the Jane Fonda to come when she is more assured of herself as an actress and being offered roles that are deserving of her talents. Fonda is more than charming here and when she says emphatically, “I wish I were a man,” the prophetic feminist edge of her future work is echoed resoundingly.

In addition, Taylor, Robertson and a hilarious Jo Morrow provide great support.

The remastered DVD transfer is very good with NYC looking fantastic. The sound is above par.

As with all Warner Archive releases there are no extras except for the original trailer, which is always nice to see and, in this case, a great example of editing some of the best moments from the film together in order to promote it.




Martin Scorsese’s
Taxi Driver
35th Anniversary Edition
BLU-RAY

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella
Sony

There are a few film’s that have given us iconic characters whose names evoke a powerful response. Scarlett O’Hara. R.P. McMurphy. Norma Desmond. Charles Foster Kane.

Travis Bickle.

In the early 70s, Martin Scorsese was a newbie filmmaker gaining fast momentum with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore under his cinematic belt. In 1976, from a powerful script by Paul Schrader, he helmed a deliberately stylized, noirish motion picture that would define a generation and have the guts to expose the nasty dark nature that exists in most humans, with NYC acting as a raging underbelly metaphor.

In addition (before Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman did it on stage with Assassins), Taxi Driver delved into the psyche of a lonely, nihilistic non-conformist driven by rejection as well as his disgust for what he sees as an omnipresent moral degradation. Robert DeNiro perfectly embodied this haunting and mesmeric creature of the night.

One year after Robert Altman’s seminal Nashville, which also dealt with assassination, Scorsese takes things one step further into the psychological abyss.

It’s taken me a host of viewings through the years to truly appreciate the genius of Taxi Driver. But after experiencing this new transfer for Blu-Ray, the moody, grungy and grim world presented onscreen had me captivated and truly astonished.

From the liltingly yet disturbing jazz score by the great Bernard Herrmann to the the delicious seediness of New York in the 70s (forever Disneyized by Lord Guiliani) brilliantly captured by Michael Chapman, Taxi Driver is a visual feast of decay and debris—both environmental and human. The rage is palpable in every frame.

Jodie Foster’s character Iris says to Travis: “I don’t know who’s weirder, you or me.” Travis Bickle represented a new breed of cinema hero, a tremendously flawed, borderline-mad, yet well-meaning young man who longs for the wholesome and becomes a savior of sorts—after going on a vigilante spree. He’s Holden Caulfield with a balls-out lunatic twist.

The best films stand the test of time. Taxi Driver, along with a handful of other 70s masterworks was prescient in its time and remains devastatingly accurate today in its examination of alienation and its consequences.

And to think this film, Network (by the master Sidney Lumet), All the President’s Men and Bound for Glory all lost the Oscar to crowd-pleaser Rocky? What were they thinking back then? Then again, everything old is new again since this year The Social Network, Black Swan and Inception all lost to crowd-pleaser The King’s Speech. Actually, it’s a miracle Taxi Driver was even recognized by the Academy considering the violence in the last reel (still quite effective today).

This digitally restored and remastered transfer has been supervised by Scorsese and Chapman. The results are extraordinary. The grainy dark colors mixed with the sharp vibrant images blend well. The aspect ratio (1.78:1) is maintained and the HD master was used for the Blu-Ray directly from the 4K digital files. There is no tampering with color here to try and make the film look cooler. It’s cool the way it is.

The high res DTS-HD MA audio mix amps up the powerful score which uneasily prepares us for the insanity to come. Herrmann’s work here is truly remarkable.
The Extras are bountiful although most are carried over from the 2007 DVD Edition.

There are three wonderful Commentary Tracks—one from the 1986 Criterion release (Scorsese and Schrader) and two from the 2007 version (Schrader, Professor Robert Kolker). All are worth a listen.

"Making Taxi Driver," is the old docu which is quite informative. In addition there are seven other featurettes totaling over 90 minutes ("Martin Scorsese on Taxi Driver," “Producing Taxi Driver,” “God’s Lonely Man," "Influence and Appreciation: A Martin Scorsese Tribute’ (a real treat)," "Taxi Driver Sories"(interviews with real NYC cabbies), "Travis’ New York," and "Travis’ New York locations.")

The one major Blu-Ray exclusive is an Interactive Script to Screen feature where the actual shooting script appears onscreen as the film plays and you can read it and note the various changes and alterations. I found this to be quite a lot of fun and I hope other Blu-Rays begin to offer this feature.

Toss in Storyboards, galleries, Movie IQ and the BD-Live feature and you have a cornucopia for the cinephiles.

The container is nice and sturdy and comes with 12 postcard-size lobby cards.

Classic cinema doesn’t get much better and this 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray and there are enough Extras to keep any fan happy. And if you haven’t seen it, you owe it to yourself to see one of the most influential films of the modern era.


 

 

 

 

 


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