DVDs for 6/30/09 – Eastbound, Vegas Bound and back to Bed-Stuy to Do the Right Thing

Kenny's crew
Kenny's crew
In Eastbound and Down, Danny McBride is former Major League pitcher Kenny Powers, a washed-up superstar who bought in to the hype and is now despised by who are, simply put, sick of his crap. Blissfully free of self-awareness, Powers doesn’t let the crash and burn of his career put a dent in his raging ego. “That is why I am better than everyone else in the world,” is his mantra, even as he moves in to his brother’s middle-class home and takes a job as a junior high school gym teacher in his home town. Not the best career choice for an arrogant jerk with anger management issues. Created for HBO by McBride with Ben Best and Jody Hill and co-produced by Will Ferrell (who co-stars in two episodes) and Adam McKay (who also directs a couple of episodes), this is a cable series created with the same collaborative spirit and improvisational approach of Will Ferrell’s movies, and it’s funnier and sharper than Ferrell’s last couple of pictures. Note that David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) directs three episodes as well. The limited series numbers only six half-hour episodes, but they make for a pretty tight story that even allows Powers to grow up a little. But not much. Also features deleted scenes (the extended “Stevie’s Dark Secret,” which apparently was too much even for HBO, is so perverse that it’s given its own supplement), commentary and a 12-minute featurette that offers the best description I’ve heard of the show: “It’s like if Dennis Hopper shot The Natural.”

Hal Ashby’s 1982 gambling comedy Lookin’ to Get Out, directed from a script co-written by star Jon Voight, was a critical and commercial flop on its original release. Seen today, in a longer cut than was originally released (Voight was pressured to edit it down by 15 minutes by the studio), it looks better, if not quite great. Voight is Alex, a hopeless gambling addict with unflagging optimism in his own abilities who sets off to Vegas with his schlub of a best friend Jerry (Burt Young) for a “big score” to settle a gambling debt. Alex is flamboyant, effusive, a perpetual motion hustler racing with out-of-control momentum. Jerry is constantly worried and unceasingly loyal, but at root he’s a good-hearted romantic who takes everyone at their word until they prove their word isn’t worth anything. The plot is a completely unconvincing series of coincidences but the dynamism of the characters and their friendships is marvelous. Voight and Young are like kids when they get excited, immature but utterly devoted to one another, and Young delivers the defining line with such unforced conviction that it won me over completely: “I don’t want your money. Alex, he does. I can’t help that, but he’s my friend and you take the good with the bad. Ann-Margret is touching as a woman from Voight’s past whose romantic idealism is tempered by her growing realization that her old lover is completely unsuitable as a father to her daughter. Ashby’s indulgence allows the film get lost in comic chases and brawls (not to mention the crazy plot involving mistaken identity and a washed up gambler played by Bert Remsen) but he always returns to the characters, who are the real story of the film. You can tell what footage has been restored by the speckling on the film (it appears to be from a workprint, but the wear is minor and the footage is otherwise sharp and has strong color) and it’s all character stuff, the very thing that makes the film work. But, lordy, is that eighties synthesizer score painful.
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DVDs for 6/23/09 – Memories of Marienbad and Lebanon

Delphine Seyrig as exhibit A
Delphine Seyrig as exhibit A

The very definition of art cinema, Alain Resnais’ 1960 Last Year at Marienbad defies audience identification, narrative clarity, even any assurance that anything we see is "real" in any sense. Characters without names, played by actors who barely change expression, walk through the lavish but coldly alienating vacation castles reserved for the rich and aristocratic, lost in time and space. One elegantly poised man (Italian actor Giorgio Albertazzi), identified as "X" in the credits," tries to convince a beautiful but impassive woman, "A" (Delphine Seyrig, in a hairstyle as coolly sculpted as the film itself), that they met last year and had an affair and made plans to run away together. She tells him, with a preternaturally restrained sense of calm, that they have never met. It could be a ghost story (the church organ score is appropriately eerie and ominous) in a European castle, the foreign equivalent of the Overlook Hotel. Or it could be film of memory, or perhaps dreams of a wished-for past, filled with flashbacks/memories/stories, but which are themselves full of elisions and gaps and even, at times, contradictory. It’s strange and surreal, full of odd humor and games, the most elaborate of which is the very tale that centers the narrative. Did something happen last year at Marienbad (Friedriksbaad or whatever lavish castle vacation spot was in fashion that year)? Or is it simply an elaborate tale, a seductive promise cutting through the stifling existence of social decorum?

Criterion’s new edition comes out on both DVD and Blu-ray in a superb transfer from a rich fine-grain master print that has been digitally cleaned and fine-tuned, supervised and approved by Alain Resnais. At the director’s insistence, Criterion includes the original, unrestored soundtrack along with the remastered, cleaned-up version. "By correcting so-called flaws, one can lost the style of a film altogether," he writes in the liner notes. Like The Seventh Seal released last week by Criterion, the Blu-ray edition is the a sight to behold and the closest I have come to seeing a beautifully preserved film play on my screen. The image felt alive, like perfectly restored celluloid projected from a well-tempered projector, and pulled me through the image. The DVD also features original half-hour documentary Unraveling the Enigma: The Making of Marienbad, a new, generous 33-minute audio-only interview with Alain Resnais and two early the short documentaries by Resnais: Toute la memoire du Monde and Le Chant du Styrene.

"I lost my memory. I can’t remember anything about the Lebanon war. Just one image." Waltz With Bashir is both art and autobiography from Ari Folman, a filmmaker with a deep interest in psychoanalysis. The memory gap was real ("It’s not stored in my system," he explains) and attempted to reconstruct those missing memories with the help of friends and fellow soldiers. Those conversations on his odyssey back in time and memory (a couple of them reconstructed with actors for the film, the rest recorded with the actual subjects) are the foundation of the script. "The memory is dynamic," explains psychiatrist Ori Sivan. So is Folman’s film, which uses animation not just to illustrate but explore the subjective quality of their remembrances, a mix of mind’s eye first-person observation, dream, fantasy and the exaggeration of emotional memory. Executed in bold lines and slow but fluid movements, it’s never sensationalistic but always striking vivid and immediate. What begins as an introspective odyssey into the effects of war on the young Israeli soldiers turns into a provocative expose on the Sabra and Shatila massacres, events that sent shock waves through the Israeli men who were made inadvertent collaborators. But the final word is not their emotional trauma, but the stark reality of the event itself. The film was nominated for "Best Foreign Language Film" at the 2009 Academy Awards (its absence in the “Best Animated Feature” nominations caused a minor outbreak of outrage). Ari Folman provides commentary (he introduces himself as "writer, producer, director and main protagonist of the film") and a press conference Q&A (in English) and participates in a 12-minute featurette (in Hebrew with English subtitles). Also available on Blu-ray.

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DVDs for 6/9/09 – The Shield ends, Jack Lemmon begins

The Shield, one of the smartest, edgiest and most uncompromising crime shows on TV, ended its seven-season run in 2008 with a brilliant final season and one of the greatest series finales ever broadcast. Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey is one of the most distinctive TV characters ever created, a maverick officer at once corrupt and dedicated, violent and protective, and utterly passionate in his job while lining his pockets on side. But this season, every evil act and dirty deed that Mackey and his Strike Force ever perpetrated comes back on him as his one-time best friend Shane (Walton Goggins) goes on the run and his wife is confronted with the truth of his legacy. Creator Shawn Ryan and his crew keep surprising us with the turns the show takes yet never compromises the integrity of the show, the characters or the world they live in. Watching Vic’s world unravel is riveting, but every character gets to shine as the show takes its final bow. The Shield: Season Seven – The Final Act out on DVD in a four disc box set with commentary on every one of the thirteen episodes by various collections of the cast and crew and a well-made half-hour featurette on the development of the storyline and character arcs of the final season: Nobody Expects to Lose, Nobody Expects to Die: The Shield’s The Final Act.

The Jack Lemmon Film Collection features five comedies made between 1954 and 1964. These are not his most famous films but the earliest in the set chart the development of the young star and the best of them show off the talents that made him such an appealing, attractive leading man before he settled into the exasperated whine of the oppressed everyman in films like The Fortune Cookie, The Odd Couple and The Prisoner of Second Avenue. This collection rediscovers the confident, somewhat cocky yet cheerfully charismatic modern urban single male, a man of wit and wile and a cornerstone of decency. Continue reading “DVDs for 6/9/09 – The Shield ends, Jack Lemmon begins”

DVDs for 6/2/09 – Playing Shakespeare, playing Wallander, singing along with Dr. Horrible

Playing Shakespeare debuts on DVD
Playing Shakespeare debuts on DVD

One of the finest nonfiction series about art debuts on home video this week.  Playing Shakespeare (Athena/Acord), a 1984 production written and presented by Royal Shakespeare Company founder John Barton and featuring featuring members of the company, is more than simply a master class in acting (as if that’s not enough in itself). Part master class presentation, part workshop, part Socratic dialogue, it plays out in the manner of an actor’s workshop, where exercises are staged with actors and the results discussed by all involved. But it’s also about theater today and in Shakespeare’s time, about conventions and ideas of realism, about language, about history and culture, about how actors try to bring them together, and finally it’s about getting to the heart of the words and characters of Shakespeare and illustrating how and why his work lends itself to multiple interpretations, each with its own insight to the art. It’s a remarkably approachable documentary with brilliant insights into the craft of acting from the likes of Ian McKellen, Ben Kingsley, Judy Dench, David Suchet, Patrick Stewart and Sinead Cusack (among many other equally fine if less famous performers), who don’t merely illustrate the lessons with performances but discuss their approach and their tools with Barton and with each other. Particularly insightful is episode four, focused on a single character – Shylock in The Merchant of Venice – with two actors who have played the role on stage and prepared their interpretations for this episode: David Suchet and Patrick Stewart. The entire show is Barton (who originally directed them both in the role) with the two actors, and it is riveting television and a brilliant discussion of art and theater as they address the five scenes in which Shylock appears in the play. And it’s serious without becoming self-serious; an episode on Shakespeare’s language, and his words, is introduced by way of a comedy sketch by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. As in the best of documentary presentations, it is both a brilliant study in its subject – theater and the work of Shakespeare – and an illustration of the power and importance of art. In the words of Shakespeare, it is as if a mirror held up to nature. Nine episodes on four discs in a box set of three thinpak cases, along with a 20-page study guide.

Speaking of the Royal  Shakespeare Company, one of its most illustrious veterans returns to British TV with one of the best mystery series of the past decade: Henning Mankell’s Wallander (BBC). Kenneth Branagh plays Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander in a trio of mysteries made for British television and seen in the U.S. on Masterpiece Mystery! Wallander is close to burnout from corruption and cruelty he’s seen and the toll its taken on his personal life and Branagh gives his most restrained yet evocative performance in years: there is such loneliness and disillusionment in his Wallander, but he’s still roused to seek justice. The episodes are beautifully produced on location in Sweden (two of them shot by Oscar-winner Anthony Dod Mantle). Three feature-length telefilms on two discs, along with featurettes and interviews.
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DVDs for 5/19/09 – Eddie Coyle, True Blood, Liberty Valance and more

Eddie Coyle - with friends like these...
Eddie Coyle - with friends like these...

The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Criterion), adapted from the terrific novel by George V. Higgins and produced in the wake of The French Connection, is probably the least heralded crime movie classic of the seventies. Robert Mitchum is Eddie ‘Fingers’ Coyle, a middleman working the fringes of the Boston underworld while waiting sentencing, which prompts him into a little side-action turning informer for a real wheeler-dealer of a detective (Richard Jordan in a pitch perfect performance). Director Peter Yates finds the perfect pace for the film, never pushing the action, never forcing the tension, letting it all play out – and finally unravel – at the same pace that his characters live off the job. The characters are vivid without being eccentric, Peter Boyle is as forthright as he is impenetrable as a bartender with his fingers in plenty of schemes and Mitchum is at his best as a tired professional still hustling because it’s all he knows. Shot in that distinctive mix of location naturalism and matter-of-fact criminal activity that defined so many such films of the early seventies, Eddie Coyle lays bare the food chain of the criminal underworld, from the robbers to the gun suppliers and all the middlemen in between, including the stool pigeons. This is the first film I can think of since Pickup on South Street that portrays the informer not just in a sympathetic light but as a natural, inevitable part of the social order. Criterion’s disc features newly-recorded commentary by an aged Peter Yates and a booklet.

True Blood (HBO), a southern gothic story of vampires in the bayou and vampire rights on the cultural radar, is the closest that HBO has come to creating a buzz show since The Sopranos and Six Feet Under (and even The Wire) ended their respective runs. Adapted from the novels by Charlaine Harris and developed for HBO by Alan Ball, it stars Anna Paquin as Sookie Stackhouse, a roadhouse waitress who can read minds (and believe me, there’s nothing going on in their small, petty minds that she wants to hear), and Bill Compton as a vampire who, like the rest of the undead nation, has come out of the closet with the invention of synthetic blood. This is a sexy show, to be sure, but it’s also primal and feral (the humans as much as the vamps) and mix of prejudice and predators and cultural color gives it plenty to chew on. The season finale cliffhanger is a playful kicker. 12 episodes on five discs in a hefty, heavyweight foldout digipak in an equally sturdy slipsleeve. “Six Feet Under was all about repression,” explains Alan Ball in the commentary to the pilot episode. “To me, this show is all about the mess of nature and emotions and intimacy.” Various directors and cast members chime on five other commentary tracks.
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TV on DVD – Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews

Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews (Liberation)

Frost/Nixon, the stage play by Peter Morgan and the 2008 movie adaptation, found drama in the story behind the historic interviews conducted by British talk show host and journalist David Frost with American President Richard Nixon in 1977, just a few years after his resignation in disgrace. It’s fine drama but its conveniently bent to fit the kinds of stories we’re used to seeing in the movies. The real drama can still be found in the original broadcasts, which have been collected on this two-disc set: the four interview programs which were created from over 28 hours of interviews conducted in eleven sessions over four weeks in March 1977 and broadcast in May 1977, and a fifth program. created for the PBS rebroadcasts from covering topics that were not included in the original broadcasts. Where the film and play create a drama from the journalistic sparring by showing Frost outgunned and overwhelmed by Nixon, unprepared for his political skill and sharp intelligence, the original programs show a more complex dynamic, with a highly prepared Frost challenging a veteran statesman on his own turf and refusing to back down.

The real David Frost and Richard Nixon
The real David Frost and Richard Nixon

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TV on DVD: Chris Haddock’s Intelligence

To say that Chris Haddock’s Canadian TV series Intelligence is (or, as is now the case, was) as good as any American crime show is unfair to Haddock. It’s better, smarter, more sophisticated than its American counterparts, more clever in its tangle of narratives and less showy in a visual style. Set in Vancouver, B.C., a central hub for shipping between Canada, the U.S., Asia, and points beyond and the major western border crossing between the U.S. and Canada (as well as the home of Haddock’s previous series, Da Vinci’s Inquest), Intelligence is a domestic espionage show about the ground work of intelligence agents after the kind of international crime that Jack Bauer is too busy to bother with: gun running, drug smuggling, human trafficking. It’s also about the workings of local crime with international reach, in particular low-key Vancouver crime boss and marijuana smuggler Jimmy Reardon (Ian Tracey, of Da Vinci’s Inquest), who plays informant for the ambitious head of the Organized Crime Unit, Mary Spaulding (Klea Scott, from the third season of Millennium and a terrific Portia in a local Seattle production of The Merchant of Venice I had the pleasure of seeing a few weeks ago) in a quid pro quo exchange of information.

Ian Tracey as Jimmy Reardon
Ian Tracey as Jimmy Reardon

Jimmy steers clear of hard drugs and not just for moral reasons; he doesn’t like the increased scrutiny from local and national law enforcement and he really doesn’t like the violence it brings. So ratting out the coke and meth dealers is a no brainer for him and the bottom line of his business. Mary, meanwhile, is making a play to step up to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), and discovers more intrigue inside the office than on the streets: what she thinks is a mere leak turns out to be a sieve pouring out information to the US, China, Russia, and who knows where else.

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