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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 2/19/04

Two from Hal Hartley

reviews by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits


1994 (2003) Sony Picture Classics (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: B-

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

Specs and Features

101 mins, R, full frame (1.66:1), single-sided, single-layered, keep case packaging, behind-the-scenes featurette, trailers for other Columbia TriStar titles, film-themed menus, scene access (28 chapters), language: English DD 2.0, subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

Henry Fool

Enhanced for 16x9 TVs

Henry Fool
1998 (2003) Sony Picture Classics (Columbia TriStar)

Film Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B/B/F

Specs and Features

137 mins, R, letterboxed widescreen (1.78:1), 16x9 enhanced, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), keep case packaging, trailers for other Columbia TriStar titles, film-themed menus, scene access (28 chapters), language: English DD 2.0, subtitles: none, Closed Captioned

"What is this? It's a philosophy of poetics, of politics, if you will. A literature of protest. A novel of ideas. A pornographic magazine of truly comic book proportions. It is, in the end, whatever the hell I want it to be; and when I'm through with it it's going to blow a whole this wide straight through the world's idea of itself. They're throwing bottles at your house. Come on, let's go break their arms."

The films of Hal Hartley (Trust, Flirt) are amongst the most dry and sardonic in modern cinema. Deadpan nearly to a fault, his films are centered on dialog and the quirky characters that deliver it. There is little 'action' as characters are fleshed out and the simple story is played out in a monotone, stone faced manner that is probably most closely comparable to the work of Jim Jarmusch (Mystery Train, Dead Man).

With Amateur, Hal Hartley took his work in a dangerously different direction; he made a 'thriller/action' film. However, this is a thriller, with very few thrills, and an action film with very little action. The film cannot be judged by the normal standards of the genres though, because Hartley seems to have little interest in 'properly' using the conventions of the genre he's working in.

Martin Donovan (Book of Life, Opposite of Sex) plays a man, Thomas, who has just woken up on a New York city street with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He soon meets and befriends an ex-nun (Isabelle Huppert) who is now spending her time sitting in coffee shops writing pornographic short stories. Soon the two find themselves searching for the amnesiac's memories. In the process of this they cross paths with a porno actress named Sofia (Elina Lowensohn) who is being hunted by a pair of accountants turned hitmen, all of whom are connected to Thomas' past.

If it all sounds ridiculous, it pretty much is; but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The fun of the film is watching the relationships between the characters develop and genre clichés take on new lives of their own. For instance, the all too frequent gun that never runs out of ammo is taken to absurd lengths as one character dances around his victim firing shot after shot (Hartley admitted in an interview once that he had absolutely no idea how many bullets a gun could hold) finally just dropping the gun as if suddenly bored with the whole ordeal. Furthermore, all the characters are fairly inept in their actions: the hitmen are far from effective; blackmail attempts go horribly wrong, the police are overly emotional; and Thomas is wrapped up in a conflict that he seems connected with, but is unable to engage in because he has no idea what is really going on. The story moves slowly but builds to a relatively 'exciting' (for a Hartley film) climax that may not satisfy some, but is entirely fitting with the spirit of the film.

Amateur is a pleasing effort from Hartley, but it is not without its faults. The film may be a bit too slow even for the director's typical leisurely pacing. Every time I see this film my opinion of its pacing changes, but I do know people who have been completely put off by it. The pacing issue is compounded by the fact that the dialog, which usually acts as a buffer for the viewer, doesn't have the same pop as it typically does. Let me put it this way, if your tastes lead you to yawn when there aren't a thousand cuts a minute and something blowing up at the slightest agitation, then don't even bother thinking about picking this one up, unless you're suffering from insomnia. For those of you who like this kind of thing though (especially fans of Hartley's work), you'll probably make it through okay. Maybe.

Whereas Amateur is a middling (although still enjoyable) effort from a talented filmmaker, Henry Fool is a whole other ball of wax. Fool is the story of Simon, a mild-mannered ("I am not retarded") garbage man that still lives at home with his mother and sister. One day and ex-con, Henry Fool, enters his life with plenty of secrets and ambition to spare. Henry is in the middle of writing his "magnum opus" and encourages Simon to try his hand at writing. Simon quickly pumps out a poem of immense size, which quickly becomes labeled as pornographic. Simon considers his first foray into writing a complete disaster until his sister, at Henry's request, posts part of the poem on the Internet and the world begins to take interest.

Henry Fool easily ranks near the top of Hartley's work, displaying a completeness and consistency that can be lacking from time to time in his work. Even if it is not his best film, it is easily his 'magnum opus,' clocking in 30-45 minutes longer that any of his previous work, yet it also seems breezy comparatively. Dry as ever, there is a consistent dark humor throughout the piece that really grounds the film, as well as great performances from all of the leads all of whom, aside from Parker Posey (A Mighty Wind, Party Girl), will be unrecognizable to most viewers. The characters also develop much more that they typically do in Hartley's films, which usually center around the developing relationships between the characters (as in Amateur) rather than the characters themselves. Also effective is Hartley's avoidance of 'showing' the viewer the texts that are central to the film's story. It is this avoidance that keeps the story focused on the characters rather than on issues such as pornography, which would only muddy the story's development. Above all else, Henry Fool seems to be the work of a much more confident filmmaker who has learned to use his eccentricities to full effect.

Columbia TriStar has released both of these films with generally mixed results. Amateur has always looked bad, even in the theater, looking like a PAL to NTSC video transfer with washed out colors and an overall soft feel to the picture (which may have been the intention of the filmmaker), and this disc is no exception. We essentially get an open matte, full frame presentation (the Internet Movie Database lists the correct aspect ratio as 1.66:1, for what it's worth) that is essentially the same as the previous laserdisc from Columbia. Overall it is a slight improvement over previous home video releases, but still disappointing. Henry Fool is given a much more acceptable transfer, although it still has its issues. The general quality of the picture itself is very good, with nice color balance and a clean, stable, and detailed image, but the framing of the image is problematic. Once again the proper screen ratio would appear to be 1.66:1, but Columbia has chosen to release the film in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. I assume this was done to maximize the picture quality for those with widescreen televisions, but I can't say I'm too thrilled with this. Most of the time framing seems adequate, but frequently looks cramped. This is nothing terrible, but it is disappointing that now, instead of opening up the matte to fill a standard television, we may be seeing the beginning of films being over-matted to fit a widescreen television (the disc even contains the standard "This film has been modified to fit your screen" disclaimer). What's next, matting classical Hollywood films to fit our new fangled televisions? Ultimately, this doesn't ruin the film but it is a shame.

The sound on both discs is decent, with clear dialog, which is the most important thing here. What little use of sound effects there are, these are well represented by the stereo tracks. There is really no need for a new surround remix, and these tracks are perfectly adequate, so I have no real complaints.

Extras on these discs are the biggest disappointment, especially Henry Fool, which gets nothing. Amateur gets a brief featurette that has some nice interview footage, but is really too short to make too much of an impact. Both discs do have a selection of unrelated trailers as well.

In the end, Henry Fool gets my unrestricted recommendation. It's a great film that really shows off what Hal Hartley is capable of. Amateur is a bit more of a 'curiosity' I guess you could say. I like it quite a bit, but it is certainly not a film for everyone's tastes. I wish the films would have been treated with a bit more care (especially the framing issue), but these discs are certainly better than nothing.

Rob Hale

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Henry Fool
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