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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 6/22/00



Liberty Heights
1999 (2000) - Warner Bros.

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Liberty Heights Film Rating: B+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B-/B+

Specs and Features

128 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:05:59 in chapter 22), Snapper case packaging, film-themed menu screens, theatrical trailer (Liberty Heights & Diner), interviews with cast and director Barry Levinson, on-set footage, deleted scene with introduction by Barry Levinson, isolated music-only track, scene access (41 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English and French, Closed Captioned


"You're only young once, but you remember forever."

The 1950s were more than just the middle of the century. They represented a hinge on which 20th Century history would turn. With World War II over, the rise of the automobile led to the rise of suburbia and a breakdown in the closed communities of before. Brown vs. Board of Education opened up the floodgates of integration, and the threat of communism began to mix with previous prejudices to form a potent cocktail.

All of this provides the setting for Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights, the fourth in his "Baltimore series." Set in the city of (you guessed it) Baltimore in 1954, this film unfolds through the eyes of a Jewish family, the Kurtzmans. The father, Nate (Joe Mantegna), is a number-running strip club owner. All of this is strictly illegal, but Nate is an honest man, and in that contradiction we find an endearing story. The eldest son (Adrien Brody) falls for a beautiful gentile. The youngest son, Ben (Ben Foster) is smitten with Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), a young black girl recently integrated into his school. All three stories run their courses, occasionally finding each other, but usually sticking to themselves. The charm, and uniting thread behind these tales, is the shared experience of being in a group in a world fearfully breaking down the walls that have long kept groups separate.

At the core, this story isn't really about Baltimore or the 1950s. It's not even about being Jewish. It reflects a time, in a very personal way, when scary steps were being taken and the social dividing lines were becoming harder to see. A particularly comical scene has young Ben ready to go out for Halloween - dressed as Hitler. His father, who is none too pleased, simply can't believe it. "These kids have no sense of history," he comments. The times, they were a changin'.

Unfortunately, all is not perfect. While the story is endearing, with its honest portrayal of a time before sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll ruled, and the messages interwoven are golden, it can drag at times. You may just have to love the little things, as they slowly unfold. Some may even say the film needed to be shortened, with some of the plot cut out to make it quicker paced. I would agree that for some, the pace may be too slow. But to cut any part of this film would be a travesty. The story, like so few out there, really utilizes every character and plot portion. It almost needs them all, so at the end of the day, the film is a wonder. But for those of us who like a quicker story, it may not be so wonderful.

The video on this disc is a bit off, representing an average at best presentation. The short end is that it has some light film grain, color saturation in some places and black levels that are off here and there. More than anything, the distinct color patterns of the time come through, but sometimes they come through too much, or shift altogether in the middle of a scene. The anamorphic transfer helps, but some work needed to be done on the color balance. The audio is about average as well, representing a less-than-encompassing mix. This definitely isn't going to give your speakers a workout. The distinct 50s tunes come through well though, so there is a positive side.

The extras do help out a good bit. A theatrical trailer for both this film and Diner (another of the "Baltimore series") is included. A batch of interviews with cast members and writer/director Levinson is good and insightful, if short. One deleted scene is here, and while it isn't missed, it was a nice little scene. The bonus is that Levinson introduces the scene and explains why it was cut, which is always a good thing with deleted footage. A music-only track, that is good but not great, and some on-set footage round out the offerings. Not too shabby treatment for a lightweight box office film.

Levinson's film is a delight. That is the bottom line. It isn't perfect, and it can be on the long side for some film viewers, but it's still a great period piece. The fact that a man who lived in that era is telling the story with autobiographical anecdotes mixed in only further solidifies the film's status. Aside from an average presentation, the disc is a good one for any fan of this film or Levinson's work. Definitely give it a try, and I'd recommend a buy.

Brad Pilcher
bradpilcher@thedigitalbits.com




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