DVD Review HTF REVIEW: American Splendor

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, Jan 26, 2004.

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  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

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    [​IMG]

    American Splendor





    Studio: HBO
    Year: 2003
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 101 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Enhanced Widescreen
    Audio: DD 5.1
    Color/B&W: Color
    Subtitles: English, French & Spanish
    MSRP: $27.95
    Package: Keep Case





    The Feature:
    I’ve been looking forward to the release of American Splendor for some time now. Although I hadn’t seen it prior to watching the DVD, I’ve heard nothing but good things about the film including many of the recent awards and accolades the film has garnered such as the Sundance Film Festival 2003 Grand Jury Prize as well as the Cannes’ Fipresci Award not to mention a host of others.

    The film is a creative biographical work which looks at the comic book series creator and writer, Harvey Pekar. The introspective view is shown a unique mixture of acting, real life cameos and real life narration (from Pekar himself). Harvey Pekar (played brilliantly by Paul Giamatti) is an obsessive compulsive who works as a file clerk in a Cleveland V.A. Hospital. Harvey, who is the absolute epitome of mundane, questions his role in society constantly and becomes weary of his regular routine. He befriends an animator by the name of Bob Crumb (played by James Urbaniak) who influences him to create and write stories based on his everyday boring life which includes his real life friends like nerdy Toby Radloff (who has to be seen to be believed and appreciated). They call it American Splendor.

    After a series of failed romances, he finds the most understanding woman in the world (man, is that an understatement). Joyce Brabner (played by Hope Davis) runs a small comic book store in Wilmington Delaware and contacts Harvey as an avid fan. As a result, the two form a friendship and eventually she travels from Wilmington to Cleveland to meet the single and interested bachelor. Let me set the stage… Harvey is rather rotund, has a receding hairline with a capital “V” and bald spot the size of New England. Let’s not forget about his back. It’s absolutely covered with black fur. Joyce, on the other hand, has very long stringy hair, glasses with lenses that are about five inches in diameter each. She is a hypochondriac who loves the futon, and oh… did I mention she vomited on their first date…? Needless to say with all of the grand qualities both have to offer, they married and she relocated to Cleveland and moved into Harvey’s den of squalor.

    Harvey becomes a favorite on David Letterman which includes many appearances on the show but it seems even he is becoming aware of his own ridicule in an almost freak show “Larry Bud Melman” exploitive way. After one too many tyrannical rants, he is no longer welcome on the show (it’s said that Letterman threw him out during a commercial break and said “too bad, you had a good thing going”…). Hey, they were both using each other, but who clearly gained from it…?

    Things go from bad to worse for Harvey when he finds a growth which turns out to be a malignant testicular tumor. Fortunately after undergoing treatment, he is given a clean bill of health. He and Joyce wind up adopting a young girl named Danielle who can’t be cared for by her unfit parents but that too comes with a complication as she is diagnosed with A.D.D. During the ending in a sad and almost depressing scene, even Harvey’s retirement party is strangely not as cheerful as you’d imagine. Perhaps it’s the realization of knowing his “real” job at the V.A. Hospital has come to an end but as he proclaims, with his pension and “whatever dough” he earns from the film, hopefully it’ll be enough for them to survive on. It becomes abundantly clear that the couple have done the best they could with the cards they have been dealt.


    In an almost “nerdy” but interesting kind of way, Harvey is finally sticking up for himself and poking fun at “the establishment” after it’s had a lifetime of poking fun at him. He does so in a comic book superhero manner whereby many of the cartoons feature him conquering much of what troubles Harvey. From what I read, this film was usually described as a comedy/drama. I have to say that I found the film anything, but funny. Funny in a manner where things become so depressingly austere that all you can do is laugh…? Perhaps. Funny in a comedic sense? Not so. It’s the emotional story of an average man who has you cheering for the underdog by the film’s end. I quite enjoyed the manner of the real Harvey and Joyce and their frequent narration in the film which really allowed us to see how accurately they were portrayed by Giamatti and Davis who were both brilliant playing the peculiar couple.



    Video:
    The 1.85:1 enhanced video transfer is reasonably pleasing with only a few minor glitches. The film definitely has a gritty feel to it, presumably to coincide with the gritty feel of the film (and man… is that gritty!). As for grain, it is present and again, I would presume the intent was to add to the feel of the film.

    As for the image clarity, I found this to be rather inconsistent. Some shots were sharp as a tack, while others were soft at best. As for the color, again, this was rather inconsistent. There were a few scenes that stuck out (the school bus scene at the end of the film) where colors looked vibrant and others (like many of the indoor shots) looked rather warm but even dull at times. I found skin tones to be particularly bothersome as there was no consistency with the coloring at all. Quite a few of the scenes were rendered quite nice with an accurate look to them while others were downright red.

    The black levels were better than average and the shadow detail was also what I would describe as slightly better than average. As for film dirt, dust or scuffs, the print appeared to be clean but there was some occasional mosquito noise as well as some artifacting issues which were particularly noticeable during many of the outdoor scenes. There was some slight EE haloing during a few of the outdoor scenes but it wasn’t bothersome.

    As described in the commentary, some of the real life footage was shot in HD while the remainder was shot on regular 35mm. So it’s hard to say if some of these so-called anomalies were intended or if perhaps the somewhat limited budget was to blame. One thing is for sure, a polished high budget video presentation with this film would have stuck out like a sore thumb.



    Audio:
    Although the provided soundtrack is a DD 5.1, it certainly wasn’t utilized to its potential nor did it need to be.

    Much of the film is dialogue driven and was always crystal clear and intelligible. The film occasionally had (Harvey, is a huge jazz fan and sells records on the side), jazz music accompanying the film which was always used in an ambiance type manner but is delivered nicely and is successful in eliciting the necessary mood of the film and its characters.

    The dynamic range is somewhat limited from mid to the higher end with very little information coming from the bottom end but the track remained consistent and was never fatiguing. The use of surround material was very limited to a couple of jet fly-overs and music filler.

    Not a track that’s going to overwhelm and given the subject matter, not one that needs to. It’s a pretty basic 5.1 track that does a decent job.



    Special Features:
    All of the menus are animated (which is appropriate) but I found the Special Feature menu somewhat cumbersome and difficult to navigate through… oh well, not really a big deal. The disc makes up for it with a rather generous amount of features, starting with:
    [*] The Commentary is chock full of interesting tidbits and includes writer/directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini along with Paul Giamatti, Harvey Pekar, Joyce Brabner and Toby Radloff. Toby introduces the lot brilliantly. Rarely is there a second that goes by with dead time and all of the participants seem eager to express their thoughts and views of the film. Many of the films technical details, locations and itinerary details were discussed. A pretty informative commentary track that fans may want to give a spin.
    [*] Road To Splendor is a travelogue featuring Harvey and his family where they bask in the spotlight (well, not really…) as they travel to the Cannes Film Festival and the San Diego Comic Convention and offer interviews with the media. Duration: 05:27 Minutes.
    [*] Up next is the song from the film American Splendor by Eytan Mirski. This is audio only – no video.
    [*] The Theatrical Trailer is also included.
    [*] There is also a Downloads feature which enables you to download wallpaper and screen savers – I can’t imagine, never mind… A DVD-ROM feature is also included which takes you to Pekar’s website.
    [*] HBO Films is a trailer which features clips of some of the great films and projects the company has recently been involved with. The bottom left hand corner of the HBO Films section on the menu can be clicked to reveal various comic credits. Also when clicking on the drive-thru speaker at the bottom of the menu, we get a short featurette on “nerdism”. I’ll be honest, at times I couldn’t tell the real Toby from Judah Friedlander who played him in the film… this guy was terrific. Duration: 1:02 Minutes.
    [*] Finally there is a 6 page comic book insert entitled My Movie Year as well as a regular chapter stop listing insert.



    Final Thoughts:
    I was surprised and delighted with American Splendor – it’s certainly not what I was expecting. It was unique, thought provoking and the originality of the frequent narrations allowed us to appreciate how capable the actors were. But folks, if you’re prone to depression, hide the Diazepam and the sharp objects, this is by no means uplifting – at least not on the surface.

    Though its quirky feel might be somewhat of a put-off to some, I’d have no reservations about recommending this to fans familiar with the film who want to purchase this disc. For those not familiar with this film, I would recommend a rental first or to those who might not necessarily enjoy non mainstream films.




    Release Date: February 3rd, 2004
     
  2. ZacharyTait

    ZacharyTait Cinematographer

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    Great review Herb! I'm glad you liked the film. I loved it when I saw it in the theaters. I'll be picking this up release day.
     
  3. Eric Estrada

    Eric Estrada Agent

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    Thanks for the review Herb. I enjoyed this as well in the theaters and will be getting this come Feb 3. Paul Giamatti was excellent in this film.
     
  4. Marc Colella

    Marc Colella Cinematographer

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    Nice review Herb.

    Definitely one of the best films of the year.

    Paul Giamatti deserves (at the very least) an Oscar nomination.
     
  5. Dane Marvin

    Dane Marvin Screenwriter

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    I finally convinced myself to make a blind purchase tonight. The film? "American Splendor". Having now seen it, I can safely say I like this film a lot, possibly even more than Lost in Translation.

    If you like one or all of the following films, this one is for you:

    -American Movie
    -Crumb
    -Man On the Moon

    "American Splendor" contains elements found in all three of these films. It is a mostly-dramatized (and by dramatized, I mean about 75% comedic) biopic about an underground comic book writer who became friends with Robert Crumb (of "Crumb" lore) in the 60s and wrote a comic called American Splendor based on his everyday life. Interspersed with the dramatizations are comic book renderings of our protagonist, Harvey Pekar, as well as footage of the real Harvey and the people from his life also shot in the studio by the filmmakers.

    As far as I know, it is only up for one Oscar this year, but I'm pulling for it to win that based on its wonderful and inventive screenplay. It took home coveted awards at Cannes and Sundance.

    The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer looks incredible! The audio (Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 Surround) is just a tad less impressive than the PQ, meaning it sounds great.

    The only thing more I wanted from the special features was a documentary on the actual making of the film, although I suppose much of that will be discussed in the audio commentary (I've only listened to the first 7 minutes of it, but it's a riot so far). The audio commentary, by the way, includes the two writer/directors, Paul Giamatti (who plays Harvey in the film), and the real Harvey, his family, and his friend Toby. Toby is the Mike Schank (you know, the "American Movie" sidekick to Mark Borchardt) of this film. I kid you not, he is almost as funny.

    There's a five-minute featurette that follows the real Harvey to a comic book convention, Sundance, Cannes, and the premiere of the film. Needless to say, this should have been much longer. But it's a nice addition as is.

    There's an audio-only selection for a song called "American Splendor" (heard briefly in the film), which is super-catchy. A real video would have been good though.

    Also included for liner notes is a simple one-page Chapter Selection index and a seperate 12-page comic called "My Movie Year". Don't read it until after the film or you'll be spoiled several times.

    I really didn't know what to expect going in, but I was certainly entertained and am looking forward to watching it with the commentary as soon as I can. I was really impressed with the casting. Everyone, from Giamatti to the gentleman who plays a young Robert Crumb, are dead on in looks and performance. Films like this deserve to be talked about and belong in film collectors' libraries.
     
  6. Paul_Stachniak

    Paul_Stachniak Screenwriter

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    This film also reminds me of Private Parts in many ways, and not just because Giamatti is in it.
     
  7. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Dane Marvin started a thread entitled:

    It's not been ignored. An HTF review thread was posted 10 days ago, and your thread has now been merged with it.

    M.
     
  8. dpippel

    dpippel HTF Premium Member
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    This was a blind buy for me and I enjoyed it a lot. Paul Giamatti really is an underrated actor. He was great in this film.

    I found the transfer subpar for one glaring reason - on my ISF calibrated Hitachi 57SWX20B it showed quite a bit of rather heavy edge enhancement. I didn't find it mild or non-intrusive at all. On the contrary, it was very visible. There's a lot of hard ringing on both vertical and horizontal edges that's most noticable in outdoor scenes, but the problem pervades most of the film. Video quality would have been a lot better without this distraction. Disappointing.
     
  9. Chad A Wright

    Chad A Wright Supporting Actor

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    This was also a blind buy for me, but I really loved the film. It's probably not for everyone (kind of like Lost in Translation), but I thought it was great. Giamattie definitely deserved recognition from the academy for this one. Oh well.
     
  10. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

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    Interesting. I had read these comments before watching the disc; so I was watching for ringing, and I didn't see it. And I was watching it on a larger screen (65").

    I saw it in a theater, and it's even better the second time. The DVD faithfully recreates the theatrical experience.

    M.
     
  11. Rob P S

    Rob P S Screenwriter

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    So did Hope Davis and Judah Friedlander.
     

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