Without a doubt, Criterion delivers the goods for the best of this week’s DVD releases, with the high art of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece of modernist cinema Jeanne Dielman and the wildly energetic grindhouse art of Nikkatsu Noir Japanese crime cinema, both of which I review in greater detail elsewhere on my blog. But that’s not all the week has to offer. Television has always seemed a little behind the times, which is why the launch of thirtysomething (Shout! Factory) was embraced with such passion in 1987: it reflected the lives of young professionals starting families in their thirties. The credits roll suggests an ensemble show, but it’s really centered on young marrieds and new parents Michael and Hope Steadman (Ken Olin and Mel Harris), with friends, family and professional colleagues orbiting around their family (among them Timothy Busfield, Polly Draper, Peter Horton, Melanie Mayron and Patricia Wettig). [NOTE: I was admonished by a friend who insisted that the series was indeed an ensemble show, which I’m sure it did evolve into. I never saw it when it was on TV but based on the episodes I watched on the DVD, the first season pivoted on this couple and they dominate certainly the first half of the season at least.]
Created by director/writer/producer team of Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick, it was drawn in part from their own lives, balancing careers and parenthood, managing expectations with compromise, wondering why it isn’t as simple as it looks on all the rest of the sitcoms and family dramas on TV. Yes, it’s yuppies dealing with the same problems their parents faced, but it also avoided contrived melodrama and clichéd situations to confront the frustrations that real people faced in lives that were never as easy as they looked or as happy as they were supposed to be. It was a success because audiences recognized themselves in it, but it was a hit because they targeted the audiences that advertisers like best.
21 episodes on six discs in a box set of three thinpak cases plus a very nice collection of supplements. Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick chart the development of the show’s creation in an animated thirty-minute discussion. The cast and writers join in for the retrospective documentary From thirtysomething to Forever, interview featurettes and commentary tracks on nine episodes. And the ten-minute “Cultural Impact” is no self-congratulatory reflection but a look at the changing face of the TV audience and the show’s place in the social conversation. Also comes with a very nice episode guide packed with stills and short essays. In short, everything the show’s fans could want for a TV reunion.
Adventureland (Miramax), Greg Mottola’s semi-autobiographical follow-up to Superbad, refers to more than just a chintzy theme park outside of Pittsburg, where college grad James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) spends a dazed and confused summer trying to save money for graduate school. It’s the real world adventures of life in the space between college and independence, that place where you think that you’re an adult but have yet to live outside of the bubble. And it’s one of the smartest, most observant coming-of-age comedies I’ve seen. Set in 1987, with all the attendant cultural detritus appropriately ticking the margins of the story, it charts the lost summer of a college graduate who ends up back in a social world more like high school. James is like the former high school nerd with a newfound sense of self thanks to college, where he discovered that ambition and intelligence are admirable qualities. But they are lost on this crowd except for Em (Kristen Stewart), the smart, supercool and somewhat messed-up girl who makes the job bearable. It’s less outrageously funny than Superbad but more savvy. They may be technically adults, but their social behavior hasn’t matured much beyond high school and James’ coworkers still seem trapped in identities that formed long before. Even the park handyman (Ryan Reynolds) is no more mature than the kids, he just has a better line of bull. Written with an empathy for all the characters and directed with a sharp eye for telling detail and a sensitivity to honest social behavior and cruel social double standards, it’s about relationships and responsibility and identity. This coming-of-age story really is about growing up. (A much more detailed review can me found here.)
Writer/director Greg Mottola and actor Jesse Eisenberg reunite for an audio track that begins with deadpan goofing and eases into real commentary that reflects more about Mottola’s inspirations than his filmmaking. The 16-minute “Just My Life: The Making of Adventureland” is a nicely-made behind-the-scenes featurette with plenty of outtakes and some very entertaining candid interviews with the cast members, and there are three short deleted scenes (with optional commentary). Exclusive to the Blu-ray are two fun and very brief featurettes (“Frigo’s Ball Taps,” a guide to rapping guys in the crotch, and “Lisa P’s Style Guide,” on how not to dress for success) and mock commercials and training videos – you too can work at Adventureland after this orientation!
In Duplicity (Universal), Clive Owen and Julia Roberts are corporate spies who fall in love while crossing paths and end up working on the same team to steal a groundbreaking formula. Tony Gilroy’s playfully suspenseful take on industrial espionage is a sleek, witty, sexy thriller with movie stars being movie stars: looking great, flaunting their charisma and playing roles within roles. And while the complicated scheme is entertaining and the endgame is clever, it’s their form of flirtation that sells the movie: these former secret agents use duplicity and mind games as foreplay. Nothing gets them hotter than playing one another, so long as they fess up in the end and launch into make-up sex. Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti co-star as the corporate titans at war. The commentary by writer/director Tony Gilroy and editor/co-producer (and brother) John Gilroy is largely focused on the nuts and bolts of movie storytelling and how Tony weaved the exposition, the plot mechanics and the character romance together. John joins in to discuss how they cut the pages of complicated exposition into tight, punchy scenes.
Gradiva (Mondo Macabro), the final film from nouvelle roman pioneer turned film director Alain Robbe-Grillet is a kinky, highly erotic and narratively surreal tale of art, fantasy, sex and storytelling. James Wilby is a French art historian in Morocco studying the work of Delacroix who discovers rare erotic sketches that may or may not be lost images of his mythical lover Gradiva. Arielle Dombasle first appears as a writer who appears to be determining his fate with her story, but may in fact be the ghost of Delacroix’s lover or a fantasy figure in a bizarre dreamworld that keeps smudging the lines of reality. Or perhaps all three. Wilby wanders into harems and S&M dungeons and sex shows high on some mystery liquid passed off as a painkiller for his toothache; he slips back and forth from waking dreams to haunting nightmares to hallucinatory visions almost as often as Robbe-Grillet does. It’s a heady piece of modernist erotica by way of a guilt-ridden fever dream they may or may not include a murder and/or a suicide but most certainly features explicit nudity and bondage imagery. I keep wondering whose fantasies we’re seeing here: art historian Wilby’s, creative memoirist Dombasle’s or Robbe-Grillet’s. Features a half-hour interview with the late writer/director and onscreen production notes. In French with English subtitles.
The Last Days Of Disco (Criterion), the third and to date the last film from director Whit Stillman, chronicles the lives of young professionals in early eighties Manhattan. Recent college graduates Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) throw off the shackles of their frustrating jobs as assistants at a publishing house in the lively nightlife of the disco culture, which is neither kitschy backdrop nor campy punchline under his direction. Stillman directs this world with the respectful elegance of his earlier films, another version of the rarified culture of the New York social aristocracy where the young and affluent romance and banter in philosophical small talk. This version has just a hint of the era of excess. Features commentary by Stillman and co-stars Sevigny and Beckinsale, four deleted scenes and a behind-the-scenes featurette among the supplements.
For the rest of the highlights (including Goodbye Solo, Rudo Y Cursi and Kagemusha on Blu-ray), visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.