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DVD Reviews

HTF DVD REVIEW: An American Crime



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#1 of 1 OFFLINE   Cameron Yee

Cameron Yee

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  • Real Name:Cameron Yee
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Posted August 16 2008 - 09:05 AM

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Release Date: August 19, 2008
Studio: First Look Studios
Packaging/Materials: Single-disc DVD case
Year: 2007
Rating: R
Running Time: 1h37m
Video: 2.30:1 anamorphic
Audio: English: Dolby Digital 5.1, Stereo
Subtitles: English SDH and Spanish
MSRP: $24.98

The Feature: 4/5
Some movies - no matter how well made - you only need to see once. "Monster," the story of serial killer Aileen Wuornos, was one such film. "An American Crime," which recounts the systematic abuse, torture and eventual murder of Indiana teenager Sylvia Likens, is another. While carrying with it a disclaimer that it's an "interpretation of events" that occurred in 1965, the film - as difficult as it is to watch at times - is actually less horrific than the real story. Which is more than fine, because it doesn't take much to make you wonder what in the world posessed single mother Gertrude Baniszewski, her children, and even the children's schoolmates to commit such heinous acts of cruelty on a fellow human being. Of course no answer would ever be sufficient and the film doesn't even try. It's a wise move by the filmmakers, but the lack of explanation also leaves the viewer awash in shock, disgust and heartbreak.

Sylvia and Jennie Likens (Ellen Page and Hayley McFarland) have been traveling with their parents as they make the Midwest carnival circuit, but marital problems convince mom and dad that a little alone time might do their marriage some good. So they put their daughters up as boarders with Gertrude Baniszewski (Catherine Keener), a woman they've just met and whose home seems constantly overrun with children (six of whom are her own).

At first things seem like everything the girls were needing - namely friends and stability. But when the first check for their room and board comes late, Gertrude thinks it's the girls who should be punished for it. Things escalate when Gertrude thinks Sylvia has been spreading rumors about her eldest daughter and turn horrific when she thinks Sylvia has been flirting with her on-and-off boyfriend Andy (James Franco). That the abuse turns into imprisonment and torture and that others join in on it is almost too much to believe if it weren't all true. And though Sylvia's fate is clear from the start, the journey to that point is no less anguishing for having the knowledge. The only consolation is that - typical of true crime dramas - we get courtroom sentencing that provides a small dose of closure, though the larger questions about human nature and propensity for evil remain long past the final scene.

Despite the difficulty of the material and the "once is enough" reaction many will have, there's much to be said about Keener's performance. Her's is the epitome of brave acting, certainly for taking such an unsympathetic role, but then committing to it so completely and cannily. Because even though she's playing an undeniable bottom of the barrel human being, she doesn't go the easy route and overplay Baniszewski as a monster. That might seem like sympathy for the devil, but it's actually respect for the victim, who suffered, not at the hands of some powerful creature, but at the compulsion of the weak and pathetic.

Page may be a surprise for those who are used to identifying her as "Juno." If that star-making performance only convinced you she was good at memorizing stylized dialogue, "An American Crime" will persuade you she's just as good when there's no dialogue at all, the character's innocence, terror and bravery coming through with mere facial expressions and body language.

"An American Crime" screened at Sundance 2007 but never got picked up for theatrical distribution. It ultimately found it's way to Showtime, allowing Keener to receive an Emmy nomination for her role. Though a gut wrenchingly difficult film to watch, it's worth seeing at least for the performances. But then if you need no convincing that Keener and Page are excellent actors - and are particularly averse to the subject matter - I wouldn't blame you if you chose to give the film a pass.


Video Quality: 3.5/5
The picture is mostly free of physical defects and edge enhancement. Black levels can be inconsistent, usually appearing more clipped than washed out, particularly in the second half of the film where things get literally (and figuratively) dark. Noise also seems to increase in the second half of the film during those shadowy scenes. Sharpness is overall decent, though some medium shots look a bit soft and wide shots show some loss of detail.


Audio Quality: 3/5
Heavy on dialogue, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix has some activity in the front left and right channels but only for the occasional period music cues. Surround activity and LFE are effectively non-existent. Dialogue is clear and intelligible, doing well even in one scene where all the dialogue is whispered. The stereo option seemed comparable in quality and is a fine alternative for those without 5.1 decoding.


Special Features: 1/5

Previews: An American Crime, Blood Brothers, Meet Bill, War Inc., Day of the Dead, August, The Art of Travel, The Neighbor, Ghouls


Recap

The Feature: 4/5
Video Quality: 3.5/5
Audio Quality: 3/5
Special Features: 1/5
Overall Score (not an average): 3.5/5

Difficult-to-watch true crime drama with excellent performances gets acceptable video and audio treatment and negligible special features.
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