“Pleasantville” begins pleasantly enough with a commercial for one of those retro-cable channels like “T.V. Land.” Ah, the good old days. “Father Knows Best,” “Leave it to Beaver,” I Married Joan,” and everyone’s perennial favorite, “Pleasantville.”
It’s “Father Knows Best” without the attitude, a congenial black and white half-hour that always begins and ends on an upbeat note. You can depend on father George (William H. Macy) walking through the door every day after work, hang up his coat, and exclaim, “Honey, I’m Home.” The honey in question is his content wife Betty (Joan Allen),who always greets him with a martini and a smile, and has dinner heating up in the stove. Daughter Mary Sue is dating the high school basketball star, while son Bud has just won first place in the school science fair. Yep, it’s a perfect world. Unlike the one that “Pleasantville” fan David (Tobey Maguire) leads in his modern day, Technicolor world. David’s not a geek, but he does have problems connecting with the girl of his dreams at school. David’s sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) has no problem at all connecting with the opposite sex. She’s a tramp, and she and everyone else knows it. So it comes as no surprise to anyone when Jennifer invites one of the high school studs to her house to watch a concert on MTV while her mother is away for the weekend. David’s only concern is that he get to watch the “Pleasantville” marathon. At stake is a $1,000 trivia game prize, and no one knows more about “Pleasantville” than David. When David and Jennifer fight over the remote control, they accidentally break it. Before David has a chance to fix it, a television repairman (Don Knotts) shows up at their front door with a new and improved remote control. How strange is that? Things get even stranger when David and Jennifer fight over the new remote, and zap themselves into the “Pleasantville” program, taking the place of Mary Sue and Bud. “Twilight Zone” time. After receiving a cryptic message from the T.V. Repairman on the television, David immediately sizes up their situation and warns Jennifer that they must abide by the rules of the show or face unforseen consequences. David has no problem playing along. He knows every episode by heart. Poor Jennifer. She has to wing it, and is reluctant to carry on the charade until she meets high school basketball star Skip (Paul Walker). At first, David and Jennifer find “Pleasantville” pleasant. Then Jennifer upsets the apple cart by asking Skip up to Lover’s Lane for a little hanky panky. “You can pin me anytime, or maybe I should pin you,” Jennifer purrs as she teaches the basketball player a new kind of dribbling. Then it begins. One by one, piece by piece, the black and white citizens and surroundings of “Pleasantville” take on vibrant color. At first it’s just a rose, then some lipstick. As the citizens of “Pleasantville” begin to come alive and think for themselves, they evolve into colorful characters. As written and directed by Gary Ross, who co-wrote “Big” and “Dave,” “Pleasantville” is filled with colorful characters, even when they are in black and white. “Pleasantville” is that rare Hollywood hybrid: a message movie that is actually entertaining. “Pleasantville” is much more than just entertaining. It’s a marvel to behold, a unique and dazzling film that creates an alternate universe and then sucks you right into it. Ross creates magic both in front of and behind the camera. “Pleasantville” is his debut as a director, and Ross has obviously been paying attention. The film is as assured as any I have seen this year. There’s not a bad performance in the film, and Ross and his team of movie magicians do the unthinkable: they use special effects to compliment the script rather than to hide the fact that they didn’t have a good script to begin with. That allows the wonderful cast plenty of breathing room to deliver some sensational performances. Young Tobey Maguire is a standout as David. There is so much understanding in his eyes. His scenes with Joan Allen show real depth and maturity. The two shared the screen together in Ang Lee’s “The Ice Storm.” Allen is breathtaking as Betty, the all purpose, dutiful mom who wants more. I have always liked Allen in everything she has done. She delivers a delicate, emotionally satisfying portrait of a woman who blossoms right in front of our eyes. Just watch her expressions as she discusses sex for the first time with Reese Witherspoon. You just know it’s going to lead to something more daring. Witherspoon is marvelous as Jennifer, who slowly begins to feel comfortable in Mary Sue’s clothing and skin. There’s a sweet earnestness to her performance, and it’s a pleasure to watch her character grow. By the time she makes her final decision, you know it’s from the heart and not just the whim of some flighty teenager. What 1950’s show about teenagers would be complete with a soda shop and the guy who runs it. Jeff Daniels is simply wonderful as Mr. Johnson, the reliable proprietor who finds himself lost when his routine is disrupted. Johnson comes alive when he decides to take advantage of the new found colors to pursue his love of painting. It’s a very nice, warm performance. William H. Macy shines as George. Macy always shines, but he’s especially glowing here as a man who doesn’t want his life to change. He likes routine, and seems perplexed when he arrives home one evening to an empty house. No martini. No dinner. No Betty. “Pleasantville” is about change, good and bad. It’s about growth and discovery, and how some fear those very ideas. Ross’ script deals with weighty issues (the black and white townspeople begin to shun the “colored” townspeople), but he delivers them in an entertaining fashion. Instead of feeling like you’re being preached to, you admire Ross for saying something important without standing up on a soapbox. The technical credits are superior, especially John Lindley’s accurate photography, Jeannine Oppewall’s retro production design, Chris Watts’ clever visual effects, and Randy Newman’s playful musical score. They all combine to help create the perfect illusion. I was very impressed with “Pleasantville.” It works on so many different levels, but most of all, it does exactly what movies are supposed to do: It entertained me. It took me to a different place and time and showed me things I haven’t seen before. It did it with convincing characters and lots of human emotion and heart. That makes it one of the best films of the year.
VISION: [ X ] 20/20 [ ] Good [ ] Cataracts [ ] Blind
Excellent, a digital transfer that is as delicate as the original negative. Delivered in the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen ratio (enhanced at 16:9 for widescreen televisions), “Pleasantville” gives you the best of both worlds. The black and white images are superior, with excellent shading and blacks, and detailed definition. The color images excel, with glorious color saturation that is bright and alive, pitch blacks, clean whites, and flesh tones so realistic they shine. Not a trace of compression artifacts or pixelation. Instead, the images are clean and crisp, with magnificent reds, royal blues, nature greens and bright yellows. The field of depth is excellent, and attention to detail is strong throughout.
HEARING: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Minor Hearing Loss [ ] Needs Hearing Aid [ ] Deaf
Take your pick of either a 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track or a Stereo Surround track. Both are alive with boisterous stereo effects, realistic ambient noise, strong dialogue mix and a complete range of highs and lows that fill the room with crystal clear sound. There’s not a lot of bass in the mix, but when it does kick in, it’s full bodied. Randy Newman’s score pours out of the speakers with a clarity that is close to live. The surround effects are excellent, caressing you from every side, while the front-to-rear spatial separation seems accurate. No noticeable hiss or distortion.
ORAL: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Poor
Closed captions in English for the hard of hearing.
COORDINATION: [ ] Excellent [ X ] Good [ ] Clumsy [ ] Weak
New Line Home Video has spoiled us with their Platinum Series DVDs, and even though “Pleasantville” isn’t one of the best of the series, it still contains enough extras to make this DVD special:
A feature-length running audio commentary with writer-director Gary Ross, the co-writer of “Big” and “Dave.” Even though Ross’ comments have relevance, he seems more interested in dissecting his personal life instead of commenting on what’s on the screen. “Pleasantville” is one film that could have (and should have) benefitted from Ross’ comments on how difficult the film was to create. Every now and then he checks in with some of these observations, but for the most part he’s overwhelmed by the politics of film rather than the creative artistry. For instance, I waited with baited breathe for Ross to explain how the basketball scene early in the film was done (where all of the team makes a basket with nothing but net). Instead of cluing us in to the film’s secrets, he rambles on about something else altogether. Okay, but not what I want in an audio commentary.
There’s also an isolated music score with commentary by composer Randy Newman. I really like the idea of having the complete score available on a separate track, but Newman’s comments are totally unnecessary. He too rambles on about issues that don’t seem to have anything to do with the actual film. Also, since seeing Will Sasso’s impersonation of Newman on “Mad T.V.” I have a hard time taking him seriously. I know that sounds cruel and totally unwarranted, but every time Newman opens his mouth, all I can hear is Sasso’s dead-on impersonation making fun of how much of Newman’s songs sound alike. Too bad there isn’t an audio commentary on-off function on the isolated music track.
“The Art of Pleasantville,” an occasionally informative look behind-the-scenes of the film. It’s here where you learn how the special visual effects technicians perfected the process of turning black and white images into color on step at a time. There’s also a gallery of storyboard drawings, plus a lengthy look at the storyboard book director Ross gave as a gift. Unfortunately, some of these scenes tend to go on way too long, and the visit with the artist who created the colorful mural seems almost amateurish. A lot of time is wasted as this guy looks for a chair. What’s with that? For a film that has more optical effects than any other film, it seems to me that the DVD coordinators missed a wonderful opportunity to unlock more of the film’s secrets. There are no cast interviews, which is a shame considering the talent involved. Not one of New Line’s better efforts.
The music video “Across the Universe” sung by Fiona Apple and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights“). First off, the music video in and of itself is absolutely stunning. Outstanding visuals. However, someone needs to zap Apple with a bug zapper. She is possibly one of the most uninteresting singers I’ve ever seen in a music video. Her version of the Beatles song is pretty abysmal, so unless you’re into stunning visuals, there isn’t anything here to get excited about.
The DVD gives you two opportunities to adjust your picture before watching the film. Several scenes appear so you can fine tune the flesh tones. Once the flesh tones are locked in, the rest of the color scheme falls into place. This is one film that demands perfect color.
The main and scene access menus are pretty ordinary for a Platinum Series title, plus the DVD also features the original theatrical trailer and cast and crew notes.
DVD-ROM features include the original script that you can print out or use to jump to a scene in the film, and Internet web links.
PROGNOSIS: [ X ] Excellent [ ] Fit [ ] Will Live [ ] Resuscitate [ ] Terminal
Even though the DVD isn’t up to New Line’s usual standards for a Platinum Series title, the film itself is worth every penny.
VITALS: $24.98/Rated PG-13/124 Minutes/B&W and Color/37 Chapter Stops/Snapcase/#N4728
ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen
PATIENT: PLEASANTVILLE – PLATINUM SERIES : PLEASANTVILLE – PLATINUM SERIES
BIRTH DATE: 1998
HMO: New Line Home Video