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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 4/17/01

1990 (2001) - Columbia TriStar

review by Brad Pilcher of The Digital Bits

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Avalon Film Rating: A-

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

Specs and Features

128 mins, PG, letterboxed widescreen (1.85:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, single-layered, Amaray keep case packaging, film-themed menu screens, theatrical trailers (for Avalon, Bugsy, Legends of the Fall and A River Runs Through It), talent files, scene access (28 chapters), languages: English, French, Spanish and Portuguese (DD 2.0), subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai, Closed Captioned

"If you stop remembering, you forget."

Barry Levinson has made the great American tragedy with Avalon. The film itself has its flaws and foibles, but the writing is endearing, and it comes as no surprise that it earned Academy Award nominations and a WGA Screen Award. But what is it about this beautiful tapestry of the greatness and sadness of the American dream that makes it so powerful? Read on and find out.

The film follows the life of Sam Krichinksy (played grandly by Armin Mueller-Stahl), a Jewish immigrant to America in the early part of the 20th Century. Joining his brothers in Avalon, a section of Baltimore, he goes about making a life for himself with them as a wallpaper hanger. The family grows, bringing more family members over to America, and they have children, their children marry and have more children, so on and so forth. The story itself actually begins years later, when Sam's son is all grown-up with children of his own. Set at the beginning of the television age, the film opens with this large, close-knit family - the kind that our own parents and grandparents long for in their nostalgic talks. In a sense, this film is just like one of those nostalgic conversations. Levinson is showing us the way things used to be, at least in his own memory. America, it seems, was once a place of wonder and vision, and this film celebrates that. But as the "New World," it involves difficult changes. And, more than anything, Avalon is a lament of the changes that dreams can wreak upon us.

To fully understand this, it's important to draw back a bit and look at the setting of the film. In the beginning, we have Sam arriving in America and joining his brothers. And as he retells this, years later, to a gathering of grandchildren and great nephews and nieces, we are drawn into the tightly knit family that is the Krichinsky's. By the end of the film, however, we are drawn to the suburbs and, when one of the family dies, only a handful are present for the funeral. It's all made very intimate and personal by Mueller-Stahl's comment, "This is not a family." But what is a family, and how is it contrasted? It's in this intimate portrait, and endearing memory, that Levinson shines. There is this beautiful scene early on, with the whole family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner. Sam tells his son that they must remember the moment, even the details, lest they forget something... and then whole family goes on to debate the details of their memories. Everybody remembers the same thing, and yet they remember it differently. If that isn't typically American, what is?

All that said, the film does suffer at times from its own weight. Certainly, it's a beautiful tapestry, but it's decidedly Barry Levinson's tapestry. Too often, it seems as if we are hearing him retelling a dear story, in the same way Sam Krichinsky does for the millionth time in the film. The story itself matters so much to him as a storyteller that he never quite realized how to really make it matter to us as his audience. As a reviewer, I'm obligated to point this out. But now, having fulfilled my duty, let me say this. If you choose to care about the story, Avalon will make it matter to you, because you can't walk away from this film without realizing its message and appreciating its subtle sadness.

The DVD presentation from Columbia TriStar is a solid, if mixed, bag. The video is rich with the colors and settings of Levinson's film, which are intimately shot. The blacks are right on, colors never bleed over each other, and the image is crisp, with little to no grain. At worst, there's the slightest hint of edge enhancement. On the audio side, the dialogue is robust and in solid balance with the score and ambient sound effects in this 2.0 surround mix. For a non-5.1 track, it sounds quite nice, with plenty of atmosphere. No complaints there.

The extras, however, come up short. We've got some talent files and scores of language tracks and subtitles, but these don't really count as extras, do they? A trailer for this film is accompanied by 3 more, for Bugsy, Legends of the Fall and A River Runs Through It. But that's it!? Where's the commentary? This is a beautiful film, badly in need of some nice supplemental materials. And yet, we essentially get nothing. That's disappointing.

Avalon is truly a special film, based entirely on its intimate portrayal of what it really is that makes America all that we've mythologized. Sure, it has its misses, if only because Levinson was too personal with this picture. But, faults aside, it's still a wonderful piece of cinema. Buy it and watch it. And then watch it again to truly appreciate the performances.

Brad Pilcher
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