1998 is the year that New Line Cinema released two of the most unique and visually daring films ever produced. Unfortunately, their willingness to be on the cutting edge of film production failed to received the deserved recognition at Oscar time. Perhaps it is because Oscar now only seems to reward films that do well at the box-office that DARK CITY was completely overlooked. However, PLEASANTVILLE ($25) is such a complete, well-conceived piece of cinema, that it should have received recognition beyond a few minor nominations. In fact, PLEASANTVILLE should have been nominated for Best Picture, plus Joan Allen's totally captivating performance certainly deserved consideration.
With PLEASANTVILLE, writer/director Gary Ross plays out the tale of forbidden knowledge and the expulsion from the Garden of Eden in a rather unique way. The plot of this comic-fantasy centers on two 90's teenagers who find themselves sucked into the universe of a 1950s sitcom called PLEASANTVILLE. PLEASANTVILLE is the idealized vision of 1950s America where everyone is white and lives in the suburbs, the father comes home from work everyday at exactly six p.m., and the mother stays at home, where she cooks and cleans in her high heels and pearls.
The film PLEASANTVILLE stars Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon as David and Jennifer, a pair of siblings who are the victims of the ever-growing divorce rate. With an absentee father and a mother looking to go AWOL, David and Jennifer have found their own ways of dealing with the situation. David has withdrawn and become the typical high school geek, while Jennifer has joined the "cool" crowd- seeking the affection of every high school hunk that happens her way. On a particular Friday night, when mom leaves town with her new boyfriend, David and Jennifer find themselves at odds over the remote control to their new big screen television. She has a date coming over to watch a concert on the music channel, while he intends to stay up for the 24-hour PLEASANTVILLE marathon on the classic TV channel. The remote control becomes a casualty of their tug of war, leaving them with no way of turning on the television set. Seconds after their remote control is smashed to pieces, a television repairman (Don Knotts) magically shows up at their door, offering to solve their problem. The repairman gives David and Jennifer a new heavy-duty remote with some extra oomph- guaranteed to put them right in the show.
With the new remote control in hand, the tug of war resumes, however the consequences of pushing all the buttons on the new device results in the siblings being zapped into the black and white world of PLEASANTVILLE. Much to their mutual shock, David has become Pleasantvilles own Bud Parker and Jennifer assumes the identity of Buds sister Mary Sue. At first, David decides to play along, assuming the role of Bud with all the ease of someone who has watched the show religiously, however Jennifer cannot stand Mary Sues dull existence and rebels against it. Soon after Jennifer introduces a bit of forbidden knowledge to the denizens of this all too perfect slice of Americana, the town and its people begin to change. Like the domino effect, a single action sets in motion a chain reaction that no force in Pleasantville can stop. Real colors shockingly appear in the monochrome universe and the residents of the town start to question the meaning of their existence. Then, other, even more starling changes start to overtake the town. As the citizens themselves gradually turn to color, the once harmonious community suddenly finds itself suddenly divided and experiencing all the growing pains of the real world.
PLEASANTVILLE is filled with marvelous performances that exceed the technical brilliance of its black and white world that gradually turns to color. Both Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon are wonderful in the central roles of the film, especially Maguire who truly makes one believe in the magic of PLEASANTVILLE. Jeff Daniels brings a naïve charm to his portrayal of Mr. Johnson, the soda shop proprietor who discovers a love for art. Joan Allen is simply amazing as Betty Parker, the perfect sitcom wife and mother, who suddenly finds herself unfulfilled by her role in the universe. As I stated above, Allens performance is something special, deserving of recognition that that it didnt receive from Hollywood. William H. Macy delivers a performance that is both humorous and touching as George Parker, the idealized sitcom husband and father. Finally, there is the late, great J.T. Walsh who portrays Big Bob, Pleasantvilles smiling mayor who tries to hold on to his way of life with a fascist zeal. Like the films cinematography, Walshs final performance is a perfect study in contrast and not to be missed. First time director Gary Ross certainly got the best from his cast, but then again his terrific screenplay made it easy for his cast to inhabit his sharply drawn characters. Ross has also beautifully staged PLEASANTVILLE, creating compositions that effectively places color into a black and white frame.
PLEASANTVILLE comes to DVD as part of New Line Home Videos wonderful Platinum Series. Instead of utilizing a tradition film to tape transfer for PLEASANTVILLE, New Line mastered their 16:9 enhanced DVD from the films digital elements. To create this unique combination of a black and white film with individual elements in color, PLEASANTVILLE was originally shot on color film stock then scanned into digital realm, frame by frame. Once in the digital realm, the color was either removed or retained as required by the story. Going back to the digital elements to create the master for the DVD allows for a purer black and white image than was available theatrically, since color film stock cannot reproduce black and white without some color contamination. In essence, the DVD version of PLEASANTVILLE is closer to the directors vision than anything presented in a movie theater. Perhaps, when theatrical projection goes all digital, audiences will get to see a fully realized PLEASANTVILLE up on the big screen. This all digital transfer of PLEASANTVILLE looks spectacular on DVD, providing a clean, sharp and well defined image. Contrast is quite good; in fact, this digitally created black and white film is almost as good as something actually photographed on black and white stock. I want to say colors look natural, but color elements in a black and white image are anything but natural looking. The all color sequences however, offer what I would call "natural" looking flesh tones and good saturation. Chroma noise is nonexistent on this DVD. Digital compression artifacts couldnt really be detected thanks to Laser Pacifics superb DVD authoring.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack was effectively mixed, offering openness and good channel separation. Sound effects were used sparingly, however all of the discrete channels were utilized, including the surrounds. Bass reproduction was good, but limited to key moments. The track also recreated dialogue with a natural resonance and Randy Newmans moving score retained full musicality without any harshness. The DVD also includes an English Dolby Surround soundtrack and English subtitles. The interactive menus are more simplistic than New Line usually offer on one of their Platinum Series titles. However, the menus offer access to the discs supplements. The chief supplement is a running audio commentary with director Gary Ross. This is a very worthwhile talk that fans of the movie should not miss. An isolated musical score is also provided, along with comments from composer Randy Newman. The Art of Pleasantville takes one behind the scenes so they can see the challenges the filmmakers had to overcome in creating this unique motion picture. Also included is the Fiona Apple music video for "Across the Universe", directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, a theatrical trailer, storyboards and cast biographies/filmographies. Additionally, PLEASANTVILLE is a PC Friendly DVD that includes the screenplay and a number of web links.
PLEASANTVILLE is a one of a kind cinematic experience that is not to be missed. New Line Home Video has created a spectacular DVD worthy of this marvelous film that belongs in every collection. Absolutely recommended.
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