I've really never been a fan of director Brad Silberling's work in the past. Long a television director, Silberling's "Casper" and "City of Angels" were professional efforts that nevertheless seemed to need story work or let the sappiness flow too freely. "Moonlight Mile", a deeply personal story to the director (it was based on an incident in his life - girlfriend and actress Rebecca Schaeffer was killed by a fan), is, without question, the director's finest work. Certainly an emotional tale, the film doesn't rely on the film's score to pull on the heartstrings and its big emotional moments are substancial and meaningful.
Opening in a small town in 1973, the film opens with Joe Nast (Jake Gyllenhaal) walking down the stairs to join Ben and JoJo Floss (Dustin Hoffman and Susan Sarandon). We soon find out that they are headed to the funeral of Joe's fiance and Ben and Jojo's daughter, whose life was tragically cut short.
Joe finds himself living in the guest bedroom at the Floss house, as all three provide help for each other in their time of loss. Ben sees him as the son he never had, even bringing him in on his real estate business plans. Joe starts to feel guilty when he falls for Bertie (Ellen Pompeo, who will be a star soon based on this performance), who runs the local post office and tends bar at night.
The finest aspect of "Moonlight Mile" is that it isn't the kind of standard emotional drama that the trailers made it out to be. There's some stereotypical elements of the genre that make themselves known in a few scenes - mainly towards the end - but the remainder of the film feels honest and subtle, never pushing the emotions - instead relying on the film's fine performances.
As for the performances, they're all quite good. Gyllenhaal, who is playing another morose, soft-spoken character, hits the same notes here with more depth. He's especially good with Pompeo, as the two have a terrific slow dance in the bar she works at. Sarandon has rarely been better as Jojo, portraying her pain underneath a surface of snaps and irritated remarks that are powerful and in a few instances, darkly funny. Holly Hunter is also very good in a smallish role. All of them know perfectly well when to hold the silence and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael frames some of the film's smaller moments in a way that's both emotional and really memorable - almost classic, even. Silberling's soundtrack of classic rock also works wonders.
"Mile" has a few small patches where it moves slowly, but otherwise, it does a fine job of juggling a few different stories at once: there's Joe's story of grief, his romance with Bertie and not knowing what his future holds; there's the business deal that Ben is actively persuing but may not ever accomplish; there's the story of grieving by all three and secrets that they don't know the right time to share.
A film that really didn't get much of a chance in theaters (it never played on more than 437 screens and wasn't promoted very well), "Moonlight" will hopefully find a new audience on video. A picture with strong characters and solid performances, I was very impressed by it.
VIDEO: "Moonlight Mile" is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen by Touchstone Home Video. While the film's color palette often remains a somewhat unpleasant brown (which is discussed in the actor's commentary), brighter colors still show through now and then and Phedon Papamichael ("America's Sweethearts")'s cinematography is natural and crisp. The studio's presentation is perfectly fine, although it doesn't stand up with some of the finer recent efforts from the studio.
Sharpness and detail are good, but not really beyond merely that. The film appeared appeared crisp and clear throughout with no noticable instances of softness, but fine detail wasn't really apparent that often, either. Some mild edge enhancement causes concern in a few scenes, but never really became that much of a distraction. A couple of slight instances of compression artifacts appeared, but they didn't have an impact, either. The print seemed to be in perfectly fine condition, with a little grain and nothing in the way of wear. A very good effort from Disney.
SOUND: "Moonlight Mile" is presented by Buena Vista in Dolby Digital 5.1. The film's soundtrack is, as one might expect, dialogue-driven and mostly oriented in the forward speakers. However, the surrounds do kick in nicely to reinforce the classic rock tunes that are scattered throughout the soundtrack. These songs are also presented with very fine clarity and a rich, dynamic feel. Dialogue, certainly the focus, sounded crisp and natural throughout. A fine soundtrack that does what it needs to.
EXTRAS: The DVD includes two audio commentaries. The first audio commentary is from director Brad Silberling. The other commentary is from Silberling, actor Dustin Hoffman and actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Browsing through the commentary with the director and both actors, I thought it was an absolute delight. Hoffman and Gyllenhaal are often very funny during the first half of the film, joking about each other's performances (Hoffman's delivery makes some of the comments priceless). The three seem to always have a fun time watching the picture and when they aren't making a joke or two, all three provide some very insightful comments about the characters and story, as well as the performances. Silberling's own commentary goes into greater detail about the writing process and trying to make a smaller, personal film on a studio level - which proved to not always be easy. Silberling literally leads the viewer through the entire production process, talking about all of the steps that the director had to take along the way - trying to find the right cast, development, production and other obstacles along the way. This is a greatly organized, enthusiastic and enjoyable discussion that is really one of the better tours through the development process I've heard in a commentary lately.
Also: 10 deleted scenes are offered, with very good audio commentary from director Brad Silberling. The director provides an enjoyable chat and nicely pinpoints the reason why each of these scenes were deleted. Silberling also provides an audio intro to the section. Rounding out the DVD is a 22-minute "making of" documentary that's generally involving and enjoyable.
Final Thoughts: "Moonlight Mile" is a well-acted, well-written drama that remained powerful even in its most quiet moments. I'm certainly no fan of the genre, but I felt "Moonlight Mile"'s emotional moments were never forced, simply brought forth by very fine performances and writing. Overall, this was really an excellent picture that surprised me. Touchstone's DVD edition provides fine audio/video quality, along with two very good audio commentaries. A definite recommendation.
The Film *** 1/2