The only thing holding back today's filmmakers are the boundaries of their imagination. October has seen two filmmakers who seemingly know no bounds; first, New Zelander Vincent Ward's tale of love in the afterlife, "What Dreams May Come". Now, Gary Ross has made an absolutely astounding directorial debut with "Pleasantville", a wildly imaginative romp through a golden age long forgotten.
The story centers on a brother and sister(Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon), who are just another pair of 90's kids. David(Maguire), is a bit lower on the social food chain than his sister, Jennifer(Witherspoon). While Jennifer gets ready for her date, David sits down to watch the "Pleasantville" marathon. "Pleasantville" is the stereotypical 50's sitcom; sort of a sister-show to "Leave It To Beaver." It becomes a little obvious and a little sad that it's evident that David may not really care for this show at all or relate to it's characters; you get a sense that it's picture of a comfortable, supportive family gives him comfort as his family falls apart around him.
That night, the two fight over the remote control, then break it against the wall. Suddenly, a TV repairman appears at the door with a brand new one and leaves as quickly as he came in. Alone again, the two fight once more, but this time, they're suddenly sucked into "Pleasantville." It's a wonderfully original concept and holds far more premise and much more possibility than Carrey's "Truman Show", which this will obviously be compared to, although the two films couldn't be any farther apart. I enjoyed this film far more.
When the two children first arrive in the town, everything is black and white. Everything is perfect. The basketball team doesn't miss a shot(one of the film's best moments is when one of the team misses a shot), the weather is always sunny and everyone is perfectly chirpy. As the two children begin to integrate themselves into the environment, things begin changing. People begin to challenge themselves and open themselves up to the world around them; doing things for themselves and challenging their own feelings and ways of living in their society. As they all awake, things begin to pop into color. A red rose, lips, trees, cars, etc. Unfortunately, some people wake up to find that their true selves are angry,violent, unhappy people who are against the changes going on in the town. The visual work here is outstanding; there are some scenes that take you to the purest sense of awe that only really truly wonderful filmmaking can bring to your mind.
There are so very many things that are wonderful about this film. Tobey Maguire has an absolutely outstanding performance as David. We share his sense of wonder and awe as he learns about the world around him as he begins to learn more about his own self. As the parents, Joan Allen and William H. Macy are excellent as always. And Reese Witherspoon is very good as Jennifer. But the film's other really standout performance has to be Jeff Daniels as a Soda Shop owner who begins to paint the town. When David shows him a book of famous artwork, Daniels captures the almost magical awe that makes the film so wonderfully moving. I also really enjoyed the film's direction and score. The black and white/color special effects are outstanding and flawlessly done.
And there are a few things that don't work. The film wraps up a bit too easily. Some of the symbolism with the color is a bit too obvious, but to be honest, it's very hard to critique a film that simply has such an outstanding beauty and soul to it. This is a film that, although you don't really take another look at the days of old, but you take another look at your world when you leave the theater. The fall colors on the trees never seemed so beautiful.
IMAGE: Excellent digital-file to digital disc transfer that captures both the wonderfully vibrant colors and also the details and contrast of the black and white photography. The 1.85:1 transfer is on a dual layered disc and it looks wonderful. The black and white mixed with color special effects shots look simply stunning; there are absolutely no problems on this disc in terms of color bleeding or artifacts. The colors, when they come up, look rich and incredibly beautiful. This image is taken from the original digital tape. When it came time to make the film prints you saw in theaters, that digital tape was transfered to film stock. Film stock is not a perfect medium and as such, the colors and FX shots we saw in the theater was not completely what was intended. For this DVD, that digital tape was taken and transfered directly to digital disc and the colors and contrast, in my opinion, are slightly more vibrant and rich than the quality I saw in the image at theaters last year. This is part of a larger discussion on whether we still should use the imperfect medium of film stock, which can get scratched, etc; "Star Wars:The Phantom Menace" will be the first use of digital presentation in 4 theaters in May. Back to the disc at hand: as the scenes continue in "Pleasantville" and more colors creep into the picture, you get a better idea of just how incredible this disc looks; the clarity and razor sharpness of the images as well as the blending of black and white and color is truly beautiful. There are no problems on this image in terms of artifacts. We're even asked at the very begining to adjust their monitor. We are given a few of the more colorful scenes from the movie to tune the color level to. I like the idea of this feature, but I would rather have had it as a seperate feature than something that is placed at the start of the film. Some of the scenes are really impressive looking; the color and flesh tones of both Tobey Maguire and Joan Allen's character in the scene after Maguire's character comes to the rescue of Allen's is an example, or during the scene where it begins to rain. This is an especially incredible presentation and like "Antz", another one of the best DVDs out there in terms of image quality.
SOUND: Beautiful sound quality that brings to life at home not only some of the more detailed effects(the crackling of fire, the boom of thunder, the tapping of rain on the ground), but the absolutely goregous score by Randy Newman, which is also isolated on a seperate track of its own. I just wish that Newman wasn't talking in between the score. Dialogue also sounds wonderful; clear and rich. We're treated to all of the wonders that "Pleasantville" has to offer in this sound mix, from the chatter of a crowd to the joy of kids learning about rock music. Realistic ambient sounds top off what is overall a lovely and clear sound.
*COMMENTARY: Director Gary Ross gives a very interesting commentary in certain ways, but there were things I would honestly rather he'd had talked about here. He has some wonderful insights about things like the problems you can overcome on a movie set(you can't overcome a bad casting choice) as well as some interesting stories from his own life and how he brought items and experiences and emotions from his own past into the making of this movie and sort of working in the way he grew up and those ideas into the production. On any other film, I would be more than happy to hear the inspirations that a filmmaker brought to the production of a film, but on a film like this where there are some incredibly detailed and new special effects, you want to hear about how these effects scenes were brought to life. During the commentary on a lot of these sequences, you look to hear details of the FX work that went into these shots, but we hear more in the way of Ross's philosophy on television or what was going through the mind of a character during the scene or the style the characters had to act in to bring the reality of "Pleasantville" to life. I sat down to this commentary wanting to learn about how this film was made; I sit down to really every commentary wanting not only to be entertained by the comments, but to learn about the processes of filmmaking. One of the things I learned in this commentary is that milk crates had 6 bottles at the "time" this film was supposed to take place. In this film they have 8. I'm not saying that Ross's comments weren't interesting on their own, it's just that this wasn't what I wanted to learn about the film; I think that the commentary could have used more people to have more of a discussion format. I have to be honest, though: there were times during this commentary where I simply "zoned out" of what was being said. There is also a commentary and isolated score by composer Randy Newman on another track that doesn't fare much better; his commentary is simply rambling and doesn't get to the point about his thoughts on the film. At least Ross sometimes gets into the details of the processes of making a movie with FX like this. Don't get me wrong: Ross's commentary, by far, definitely isn't the worst commentary I've ever heard and as the film goes farther into the "Pleasantville" scenes, it does definitely improve in terms of what I was looking for. A good example of just what I was looking for is during the bowling alley scenes where Ross goes into great detail about just how he filmed the opening shots of the bowling alley. Since Ross himself was personally a part of making the special effects scenes, I would have thought he would have had more to say about them.
*MUSIC VIDEO: We get the music video for Fiona Apple's "Across The Universe" directed by "Boogie Nights" director Paul Thomas Anderson. It's an incredible looking video, but the fact that Apple is not exactly lively doesn't help matters; I like her music quite a bit, I just don't like her in videos. See it for Anderson's well-done direction and photography.
*STORYBOARDS: A gallery of small storyboard images. There are quite a few and some are quite nice, but I would have liked either text about the storyboard on-screen or simply, whole scenes storyboarded piece by piece instead of random shots. Still, it's very nice to have extras such as this.
*DOCUMENTARY: "The Art Of Pleasantville": A little dissapointing. I was expecting more of a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie; instead we get interviews from the crew with the occasional scene from the film. Some of these scenes are pointless, especially a scene where a guy spends what seems like hours trying to find "his special chair"(no, I'm not joking)(finally he choses another, less "special chair" and sits down to talk). Only the first section, "Special Effects", provides any insight into what it took to make this movie. The second area, "Shooting The Film", is simply an on-camera interview with director of cinematography John Lindley. The next chapter is yet again, More of an on-camera interview with Lindley, talking about the problems of producing accurate film prints. The next chapter of the documentary is....you guessed it, more Lindley, flipping through a book of the storyboards on camera. It goes on and on, but I must say I was dissapointed.
MENUS: Very ordinary non-animated menus with pictures of the film in the background. The non-animated menus of New Line's "Living Out Loud" were at least stunning to look at and wonderfully creative. These just don't have any spark.
OVERALL: This is really a 50/50 disc, in my opinion. The film alone is simply enough to recommend this disc, that's for sure. Audio and Video quality are also absolutely top notch, but for such a wonderfully original and beautiful film with so many rich special effects, we really don't learn very much about how a film like this was made, even in the director's commentary. The documentary is especially dissapointing. I'm going to give this disc a B+; the image/audio is top notch, but I was dissapointed by the extras.
Also: DVD-ROM users can print out the screenplay.
FILM:93/A = (465/500 Possible Points)
VIDEO:97/A = (388/400 Possible Points)
AUDIO:91/A- = (364/400 Possible Points)
EXTRAS:81/B = (243/300 Possible Points)
VALUE: 93/A = (279/300 Possible Points)
MENUS:65/D = (130/200 Possible Points)
PRESENTATION: = 80/B-(80/100 Possible Points)
TOTAL POINTS: 1949/2200 POINTS
OVERALL SCORE: 88.59%/B+
STARS: **** 1/2/*****
RECOMMEND: The film and the $24.99 retail price combine to make this quite a recommended purchase, or at least a rental.