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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 12/12/00

The Straight Story
1999 (2000) - Walt Disney Pictures (Buena Vista)

review by Dan Kelly of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

The Straight Story Film Rating: A

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

Specs and Features

112 mins, G, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:07:07), Amaray keep case packaging, theatrical trailer, film-themed menu screens, no scene access (director David Lynch wanted no chapter stops), language: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English, Closed Captioned

On the surface, the story of Alvin Straight is a simple one - an old Iowa man heads across the state to make amends with his ailing brother. The two haven't seen each other in ten years. The last time they spoke, the argument that ensued made the two of them vow to never again speak with one other. Alvin lives at home with his daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek, who is amazing as usual), and the two depend on each other for just about everything. But when Alvin learns that his brother has recently suffered a stroke, he decides to make the trip to Wisconsin to see him. The problem is, neither he or Rose can drive. So, with equal parts determination and stubbornness, he hitches a trailer to the back of his John Deere riding lawn mower and heads to Wisconsin. That much of the story is what begins and ends the film.

But what carries the story in between these events is the journey, both physically and emotionally, that Alvin takes as he makes his way to Wisconsin. His trip is a passionate one, a reclaiming of sorts, as he confronts issues from his past that he hasn't allowed himself to deal with. On his six-week trip, Alvin encounters quite a few people whose lives he will touch with his eagerness to share and willingness to listen. His exchanges with them are equal parts light in nature and heartbreaking. When one of the townspeople he encounters asks him what the worst thing about getting old is, his reply is short and honest - "Remembering what it's like to be young." What he says with one-sentence covers more emotion than what many people try to accomplish with entire novels.

The Straight Story is a beautiful portrait of a wise, wonderful, and uniquely American story. It's a movie that lets its imagery do the talking. In this respect, it reminds me a great deal of Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. They're both movies that are so filled with beautiful, sweeping images, that the dialogue becomes secondary. There is no idle chit-chat in The Straight Story. When Alvin sits down to talk and tell a story, it's because he has something important to say. And we, in turn, listen to him. He's not the typical Hollywood wise-old sage. He doesn't sit around and dole out advice and healthy heaps of worldly knowledge. He reflects on his youth, his old age and how each has molded his life. So much of the late Richard Farnsworth's marvelous performance comes from just a look in his eye, a nod of his head or earnest reflections on his life. The fact that he gave such a strong performance while living with a debilitating illness makes it all the more impressive and admirable.

At first glance, David Lynch wouldn't seem like an obvious choice to direct the story of Alvin Straight. After all, this is the man behind deranged masterpieces like Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and television's Twin Peaks. But if you look closer and really think about it, it's not such a strange choice. What Lynch's films (both the good ones and the bad ones) all have in common is an appreciation for beauty in strange and unexpected places. Whoever thought a story about a seventy-something year old man traveling across Iowa in a tractor could be as beautiful as it ends up being in The Straight Story? Lynch and his lens man Freddie Francis give us long, steady shots of the real life towns and prairies that Alvin traveled through on his way to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin. It's a beautiful trip, and they film it with tedious care to make sure the viewer appreciates every mile of Alvin's journey.

While not quite reference-quality, Disney did a nice job of bringing the theatrical experience of The Straight Story to DVD. This is a good-looking picture, that accurately reflects the theatrical image. Colors are bright, solid and artifact-free. As can be expected from a new film, there is no print-related damage to the picture, like hairline scratches or dust residue. Disc-wise, there are a few instances where the video doesn't quite look up to par. Some of the shots of the night sky don't represent blacks as accurately or densely as they should be. It's not quite heavy film grain, moiré or even artifacting. It's as if the blacks couldn't quite hold their density and we get a curious flickering. This aside, the picture is definitely one you'll be able to enjoy. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track is also reflective of the theatrical exhibition. Lynch always places as much importance on the sound of his films as he does the visuals. Think of the sound of the ants swarming around the ear in Blue Velvet. While there's nothing quite that exaggerated here, the sound field is still fairly active and engaging. Dialogue, music and effects tracks are all equally balanced to create a strong mix that is very reminiscent of the theatrical sound.

If want a nice set of DVD features to give you a look behind the scenes, or even a little more information about the real life Alvin Straight, then you'll inevitably walk away disappointed here. The only thing Disney has included is the theatrical trailer. But this is the director's choice. David Lynch likes to let his films speak for themselves, and he does just that. His contribution to the disc was minimal and he asked that there be no chapter stops on this DVD. He also asks that the audience accept this decision in a handwritten note on the insert inside the case. The reason for this, is that Lynch sees his story not as a book to be read from chapter to chapter, but rather as one whole experience - much like Alvin's journey. Is the lack of chapter stops bothersome? No, not at all. This is an involving story, that you'll likely want to take in all at once. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more on the disc, like a Lynchian commentary track, or even one with Freddie Francis... but settling for the film alone is fine. I seriously doubt we'll ever hear Mr. Lynch's voice on a commentary track, although I'd love to be proven wrong. Oh... and there's one added bonus that Disney thankfully didn't include - their usual obligatory pre-feature trailer-fest. Pop the disc in, and it goes right to the film-themed menu screens. That's very much appreciated (and the way it should always be).

Though it's really light on the features, The Straight Story is a movie well worth seeing. It's one of the better-looking films of the past few years, and this DVD accurately portrays that. It's not your average Disney fare, nor is it your average David Lynch film. Neither of those facts should turn people away from this movie. It's a small film, with a grand scope and an even bigger heart. Highly recommended.

Dan Kelly
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