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Site created 12/15/97.


review added: 3/24/99



Pleasantville
New Line Platinum Series - 1998 (1999) - New Line

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Pleasantville DVD Film Rating: B+
Pleasantville is a whimsical "what if" story - a classic fish out of water tale, of two 90s teens who suddenly find themselves trapped in the idyllic world of a 1950s sitcom - a world they quickly turn upside down. Funny, endearing and well-crafted, if just a bit heavy handed.

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A+/A/A-
Terrific anamorphic widescreen picture, and very natural Dolby Digital 5.1 surround. A bunch of nifty extras are included too, although Mac users are left in the dark by the PC-only features.

Overall Rating: A
It's tough not to love this disc. The film is very entertaining, and is presented here in wonderful quality. And there are hours worth of extras to sift through, including some good commentary and even the film's script. The Mac-compatibility issue aside, as a character in the film might say, "Golly, it's swell!"

Specs and Features

124 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 80:44, at start of chapter 30), Snapper packaging, audio commentary by writer/director Gary Ross, isolated score with commentary by composer Randy Newman, behind-the-scenes featurette The Art of Pleasantville, Fiona Apple music video Across the Universe, storyboard gallery, theatrical trailer, color TV set-up images, PC-only DVD-ROM features (which include web access, links, trivia, and printable screenplay with storyboards linked to each scene), film-themed menu screens, scene access (37 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, Close Captioned

Review

Imagine if you will, two modern teenagers from a broken home, coping with all of the trials and tribulations of high school in the present day. One, David (played by Tobey Maguire), is something of a geek, whose favorite pastime is watching reruns of an old 1950s sitcom called Pleasantville (think Leave it to Beaver meets Father Knows Best - you basic sans color, Nick at Nite fare). The other, Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), is a somewhat slutty bad girl (good at heart, of course) who is working hard to be popular, and is definitely hanging with the wrong crowd.

One night, while Mom's away, both have big plans - Jennifer's invited a guy over for MTV and other extracurricular activities, and David's planning on winning a trivia contest at the end of an all-night Pleasantville marathon. But both reach the coveted TV remote control at the same time, and a fight ensues, in which the remote is damaged beyond all hope. As luck would have it, a kindly TV repairman (Don Knotts) arrives with a replacement. But this ain't no ordinary remote, and before Jennifer or David know it, they've zapped themselves right into the world of Pleasantville.

And what a strange world it is - the books all have blank pages, no one ever misses a basketball shot, and no road leads out of town. David and Jennifer soon find that they've assumed the black & white identities of Bud and Mary Sue Parker, complete with shinny-happy new parents (played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy). Everything that happens around them is straight out of a rerun, and when David and Jennifer start deviating from the original plot, strange things begin happening, andPleasantville may never be the same.

This movie was written and directed by Gary Ross, who also crafted the screenplays for Dave and Big. As the director admits on his own commentary track, he's very much attracted to high-concept stories, that can serve as allegories for contemporary themes. This film, which recalls the work of Frank Capra in many ways, is no exception. Human beings have a tendency to romanticize the past - the "good old days", so to speak, when everyone was happy, and there was nothing of the problems and complexities of modern life. This is, of course, almost completely false, and that's the point Ross is trying to make here. Pleasantville's seemingly perfect world is devoid of all of the true pleasures of life - there's no art, no literature, no one even knows what sex is. Naturally, David and Jennifer begin to change this. And as the inhabitants of this fictional town begin to gain a greater awareness of what life is really all about, they begin to (literally) see the true colors of the world around them.

As clever as the story is, and it is very well written, it's the acting that makes this film. There is not a bad performance in the bunch, and Maguire and Witherspoon really give it their all. Macy is wonderful as the father whose perfect life begins to crumble around him. Allen shines as she begins to discover a life beyond what she's ever known. And Jeff Daniels brings great humanity to his role as Mr. Johnson, the humble owner of the local soda fountain, who discovers his love of artistic expression. But I must admit, Don Knotts and the late J. T. Walsh stole the show for me. It's just great to see Knotts on screen again, and he's just as off-kilter funny as he ever was: "Those aren't your cookies! Those are Whitey's cookies, Bud!" And it's important to note that Pleasantville was J. T. Walsh's final film performance. If Walsh is remembered for no other role, this one is a fitting swan song. He's simply wonderful as Big Bob, the beleaguered town Mayor, who struggles valiantly to turn back the clock on progress. And he delivers, hands down, the best line of the film. As their world collapses, the town's concerned men folk gather around Big Bob for their leader's advice: "Well, we're safe now. Thank goodness we're in a bowling alley."

My only real complaints with the film, are that it seems to run on a bit long, and it does get (in my opinion) just a bit heavy handed in the end. As more and more of the characters begin to appear in color, those still in black and white start accosting the "coloreds", burning books and the like. A mini riot ensues, eventually leading to the arrest of David (as Bud) and Mr. Johnson, followed by the obligatory trial scene. It was just a hair too melodramatic for my taste. Still they're fairly minor issues, and they don't affect the film's impact overmuch.Pleasantville is an entirely wonderful movie experience - if not quite perfect, still very, very good.

As a DVD, this latest addition to New Line's Platinum Series is impressive indeed. The video quality is tremendous, presented here in anamorphic widescreen. Those involved in the DVD's production say that this version is actually closer to director Ross' vision of the film than even the original theatrical exhibition. The reason for this, is that much of the film is presented in black & white, with only selected portions of the image in color. Film prints are subject to chemical imperfections, which resulted in the release prints having a slight green or magenta tone. With DVD, the chroma information can be simply removed, resulting in true black and white where desired. In addition, the transfer done for this DVD is nothing short of fantastic, with virtually no print imperfections visible. The contrast range exhibited here, so important given that most of the film is in black and white, is excellent. The picture is crisp and clear. And where it does appear, the color is rich and full.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround is nearly as good as the picture. Don't expect a ton of surround sound effects here - what there are are very well done, but that's not the point. The audio mix is completely natural sounding, with clear, full dialogue evenly mixed across the front of the sound stage. The bass is solid but not overpowering, and Randy Newman's score is well presented. And there are one or two moments of really great sound - the wet slap of a ham steak on Reese Witherspoon's breakfast plate in chapter 8, followed by the thick glug of maple syrup. And chapter 29 has some good audio work set in the aforementioned bowling alley.

As for extras, this DVD delivers plenty. Two audio commentary tracks are provided - one of the director, and another which is actually the film's isolated score, with occasional commentary by composer Randy Newman. Both are a generally good listen. There's a good behind-the-scenes documentary included, which takes a fascinating look at the production design and the effects work. A small gallery of selected storyboard images is available, as is the film's wonderful theatrical trailer. The original music video for the film's closing song, a remake of Across the Universe as sung by Fiona Apple, is also available. New Line even provides a series of images that are intended to be used to make sure your TV's color settings are properly adjusted, although I wish they weren't tacked onto the front of the film - they're the first thing you see when you press play. My only complaint with the DVD player accessible extras, are the menu screens, which are rather dull, with no music or animation.

As for DVD-ROM features, you get web links, access to up-to-date cast and crew bios (maintained on the Internet), trivia and more. You also get access to the complete screenplay (it's actually on the disc), with storyboards, which can be printed in full. Or you can read a particular scene, then (with the click of a mouse) jump right to that scene in the film. As a screenwriter, I find this feature to be a great resource for anyone who studies the craft. Unfortunately, the DVD-ROM extras are only available to those with PCs - Mac owners are out of luck (although New Line assures me that they are working to change this in future releases). I still don't like having to install software on my computer to access these extras (HTML-based access, which requires only a browser, seems a better idea to me). Something which makes me very happy however, is that New Line fully intends to maintain any DVD-ROM content, that's stored on their Internet web site, in perpetuity. So there's no fear that the disc's Net-based extras will just disappear after a certain amount of time. Reassuring indeed.

Bottom line

All in all, I'm very impressed with Pleasantville on DVD. This a very good film, with terrific performances, good tongue-in-cheek humor, and plenty of humanity. The disc packs lots of fun extras, which would take many hours to explore completely. This is a DVD for all to savor, from film buffs to 50's sitcom fans to anyone who has ever looked back on the "good old days" with a blind eye. Buy and enjoy!

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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