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Kevin's Digital Week 22: Faraway Worlds

Blu-ray of the Week
(Fox)Avatar Blu-ray
An undeniable visual triumph, Avatar’s runaway financial success is the unsurprising culmination of the recent turn toward movies that are made for our eyes only, since the movie’s splendid set design and computer-generated makeup and effects make its banal story, mediocre acting and laughable dialogue superfluous. Director James Cameron might have created a world and a myth that millions of people around the world have bought into hook, line and sinker, but that does not avoid the inescapable fact that his movie, regardless of its luster, is an old-fashioned adventure dressed up in hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of stare-of-the-art camouflage.

Still, although it’s puzzling that it won the Oscar for Best Cinematography (how can you tell what was shot with what was created on computers?), it’s easy to see what has enticed the movie’s legions of fans; on Blu-ray especially, Avatar’s brilliantly varied use of color becomes addictive. But at more than two and a half hours and without any characters even remotely worth caring about or rooting for (Stephen Lang did his crazed-general bit much better on Broadway in A Few Good Men two decades ago), Avatar soon wears out its welcome, as the viewer’s eyes glaze over from the mind-numbing sameness. There are no extras included in the Blu-ray/DVD pack, and no 3-D either.

DVD of the Week

The Young Victoria The Young Victoria

An elaborately-costumed soap opera, The Young Victoria dramatizes the early years on the throne of the long-reigning English queen, whose name has become synonymous with an entire era after an eventful reign of 63 years. We see Victoria before ascending the throne at age 18, when she had to decide on a husband and, against much advice, chose Prince Albert, with whom she remained (and with whom she had nine children) until his premature death at age 42.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee doesn’t break any costume-drama rules, and if the movie is too conventional to a fault, it remains highly watchable, thanks to a first-rate physical production (led by Sandy Powell’s Oscar-winning costumes) and a group of good British actors, led by Emily Blunt’s spunky, touchingly vulnerable presence as Victoria and Rupert Friend as her sturdy Albert. The DVD’s extras comprise deleted and extended scenes, along with several too-brief featurettes about various aspects of the production, with an emphasis on the costumes, set design and attempts at historical accuracy.

"A Behanding in Spokane" Is the Ultimate Shaggy Dog Story

Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by John Crowley
Starring Christopher Walken, Anthony Mackie, Zoe Kazan, Sam Rockwell

Martin McDonagh takes weird to new levels in this ultimate shaggy dog story.  It's bizarre and funny, albeit in a curious way, and if you suspend belief and don't take it too seriously, you will have a good time -- though you may shake your head as you leave the theater.

It seems that a 17-year-old kid was playing catch in Spokane, Washington, when six hillbillies dragged him to the railroad tracks, forced his hand onto the rail and watched while a train sped by and sliced it off. Then they used it to wave him good-bye. He, Carmichael (Christopher Walken), decided that if he didn't die, he would retrieve his hand and pay the attackers back. He has spent the ensuing 47 years doing just that.

Hillbillies in Washington state? When Walken tells the story, longish hair hanging limp below his ears, sunken eyes peering out of a drawn almost macabre face, you have to believe it. He creates a character who is creepy and ordinary at the same time.

So, now he has ended up in a film noir setting of a seedy hotel: blue chenille-covered bed, open radiator, and white neon "Hotel" sign partly visible through the window (set by Scott Pask). He has promised $500 to a couple of local pot sellers, Toby (Anthony Mackie) and Marilyn (Zoe Kazan) who say they have found his hand.

When Carmichael suspects he is being conned, his reaction is wicked. But it's a black comedy, so the horrific jokes are on the audience.

You have to sympathize with Toby (whose frustration is brashly expressed by Mackie); he has to deal not only with the threatening Carmichael, but with his girlfriend Marilyn (her wide-eyed naïveté aptly conveyed by Kazan). She seems to always say the wrong thing; in the circumstances, that could be deadly.

The hotel desk clerk, Mervyn (Sam Rockwell), out on bail for selling speed, appears entertained by it all. Rockwell plays him so matter-of-factly that you hardly question that, hoping for adventure, he’s sorry he was never in a high school massacre so he could be a hero. Or that he has a deep affection for a gibbon he visited at the zoo.

An invisible presence is Carmichael's mother, who we learn via a phone call has fallen out of a tree she was climbing to retrieve a balloon. Carmichael shifts between caring son-to-mother chat and cursing her when he discovers she's poked around in his room.  Mother, by the way, is a racist and there are questions raised when Toby talks to her on the phone in an obvious black dialect because he is, well, black.

Asked if the hillbillies were black or white, Carmichael cracks, "You can’t get black hillbillies." You never can tell with a black comedy.

A Behanding in Spokane
Schoenfeld Theatre
236 West 45th Street
New York City, NY
(212) 239-6200
Opened March 4, 2010; closes June 6, 2010

For more by Lucy Komisar:

Photos: Joan Marcus

Digital Week 21: Stormy Europe

Blu-ray of the Week

Summer HoursSummer Hours
Olivier Assayas has directed a superior soap opera about a trio of French siblings who must decide whether to sell the family estate–famous paintings, antique furniture, and all–after their 75-year-old mother unexpectedly dies. Skillfully juggling his disparate characters (oldest brother, who’s most conservative; middle sister, a free spirit living in New York and engaged to an American; youngest brother, working with a shoe company in Shanghai, his wife and three kids in tow), Assayas gives us glimpses into their lives with a single line of dialogue or a brief shot of subtle body language or minute gestures. He even frames Summer Hours with sequences showing the next generation—these characters’ children and (at the end) their friends—and there’s something simultaneously touching and sad about their lack of knowledge about their own past (with one exception).

There’s seamless acting from Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, and Jérémie Rénier as the siblings and Edith Scob as the benevolent family matriarch. On Blu-ray, Assayas’ subtle color palette is rendered with expert consistency—this is another in a long string of flawless Criterion high-def transfers. The usual plethora of superb Criterion extras includes Inventory, an hour-long documentary about the relationship of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris to the film’s making; on-set interviews with Assayas and his cast; and an Assayas interview.

DVD of the Week

(Film Movement)Storm
In this harrowing drama directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, Kerry Fox persuasively plays a worn-out prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague with a nearly impossible task: how to convict an obvious guilty Yugoslav commander of crimes against humanity when her hands are, literally, tied by the court? Schmid concentrates on the minutiae of the political backstabbing and dealing that occur in a supposed place of justice, and only rarely does he go all wobbly trying to turn this already harrowing story into a “thriller” that relies on near-accidents and strange disappearances. 

Storm is an involving nail-biter, and complementing Fox’s terrific work is another spectacularly lived-in performance as a key witness by Anamaria Mancia, the actress so unforgettable in the Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. As usual with Film Movement releases, the lone extra is a short film: from Germany, Toyland in 14 quick minutes asks still-pertinent questions about guilt and complicity.

Love, Loss, and What I Wore: Seams & the City

There's no saying when I'll forget what I wore when my engagement went bust, but so long as my brain connects with my heart, I suspect both organs will continue to drag in my wardrobe. Need I state that those black jeans went the way of that diamond ring?

Seeing Love, Loss, and What I Wore merely three months into my re-accessorized state, I worried that the Off-Broadway show at the Westside Theater might be a little too close for comfort. But Nora and Delia Ephron's collage of stories is entertaining enough to be therapeutic.

The sisters drew inspiration from Ilene Beckerman's 1995 memoir of "growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s, '40s and '50s through the clothes I wore," as the author says on her website.

Every four weeks it's performed by a new cast of five who sit and deliver. The lippy dames consult their scripts, adding to the informal, stripped down feel of the klatch. On the night that I saw it, Lucy DeVito, Melissa Joan Hart, Capathia Jenkins, Shirley Knight and standout Judy Gold comprised the ensemble.

Karen Carpenter's direction is as unfussy as the black clothing they wear. And as you'd expect from a New York play on fashion and feeling, that ne plus ultra color gets its share of riffs. A mini-disquisition on it climaxes with the quip, "Can’t we just stop pretending that anything will ever be the new black?"

Leading us through the monologues and one-liners is Beckerman alter-ego Gingy, interpreted by a winsome, if slightly distracted Knight. She opens with the clothed life's source of all wisdom, her mother. Displaying Madelinesque drawings of the Brownie uniform and taffeta dress her mother once sewed for her, she confides that what she really coveted were ready-made items from the store. There can be no doubt that mom is the ideal launching pad for a retro-glimpse at the fabric of our evolving identity and relationships.

Gingy's stage mates each play several characters in varying situations of love and loss. Some are more bitter than sweet. A particularly poignant vignette is about the lace bra that a cancer patient filled her reconstructed breasts with. Another eulogizes the boots and short skirts its owner wore until she was raped. (The boots stayed; the skirts went to Goodwill.) And a third recalls the bathrobe a new step-mother wore, which to the chagrin of her five step-daughters, was identical to their deceased mother's, only in "electric blue."

"Heels or think" was the choice one of DeVito's young personas faced. Bunions be damned, she favored the former until after her divorce, when "think" got the upper hand.

By far the best-tailored monologue is Nora Ephron's rant about purses. Taken from her humor anthology, I Feel Bad About My Neck, it declares war on the handbag and takes no prisoners of the offending clutter within. Jenkins vamped her way through the sheers-sharp pokes at stray lipstick and tampons, and simply brought the house down.  

For all the play's pinch and charm, it never fully recovers from that blow. Nora upstages herself and her sorority of creators, showing what can really be done with the material, and planting a vague qualm that Love, Lost has wispy clothes.

In its stage translation, Beckerman's book is fortified with stories by a bevy of media mandarins including Rosie O'Donnell and Alex Witchel. It could have used a page from Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes. Or something akin to Paul Fussell's insight that, "because men's shoulders constitute a secondary sexual characteristic," epaulets are a macho look. In other words, I'd have invited some sartorial scholars to crash the slumber party.

But maybe that's just me. Judging by their appreciative laughter, the audience of mostly boomer females were plenty thrilled as it was. The Ephrons, whose screen adornments include Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Julie & Julia and Sleepless in Seattle (and Nora penned the Oscar-nominated When Harry Met Sally) have once again accoutered an appealing amusement with broad appeal to women and other clothes wearers.

Find out who's performing the next four-week cycle, among other details, at

Love, Loss, and What I Wore
Westside Theater
407 West 43rd Street
New York, NY
(212) 239-6200

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