Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Avalon (1990)
Studio Line: Columbia TriStar

From the Oscar-winning director of Good Morning, Vietnam (1998) and Rain Man (1988) comes Avalon, Barry Levinson's critically-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical masterpiece. Intensely personal and yet universally appealing, Avalon follows immigrant Sam Krichinsky and his extended family as they seek a dream called America in a place called Avalon. From poverty through prosperity, the Krichinsky family faces a changing world with enduring humor and abiding love. Whether squabbling over Thanksgiving turkey or commiserating over a failed business, Levinson never fails to find the comedy and immediacy of their immigrant experience. A superb cast led by Armin Mueller-Stahl, Aidan Quinn and Elizabeth Perkins perfectly captures the vibrant love and laughter of this quintessentially American family. The coming-of-age story of an entire nation, Avalon is a "tapestry of American life so rich and perfect it could hang in a museum." (Rex Reed)

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Leo Fuchs, Eve Gordon, Lou Jacobi, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Elizabeth Perkins, Joan Plowright, Kevin Pollak, Aidan Quinn
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Screenplay; Best Cinematography; Best Costume Design; Best Original Score-Randy Newman. 1991.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround 2.0, French Dolby Surround 2.0, Spanish Dolby Surround 2.0, Portuguese Dolby Digital 2.0; subtitles English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 28 chapters; Rated PG; 128 min.; $24.95; street date 3/13/01.
Supplements: Theatrical Trailers; Talent Files.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: B/B/D-

Right up front I should probably admit that I donít like most of the films made by Barry Levinson. However, my attitude wasnít always so negative - the change occurred roughly a decade ago when I saw Avalon.

Prior to that 1990 release, I hadnít come to a firm conclusion about my opinions of Levinsonís work. I never saw his hit 1982 debut Diner, though I heard good things about it. I thought 1984ís The Natural was a bit hokey and sentimental but I found it modestly entertaining. I had no strong feelings about either 1985ís Young Sherlock Holmes or 1987ís Tin Men and I can barely remember them today. Nonetheless, I think I found each to be watchable but unspectacular. 1987ís Good Morning Vietnam showed some excessively patronizing tones - which Iíd later recognize as a Levinson hallmark - but at the time, I thought the movie was decent.

Although I later developed a disdain for 1988ís smash Rain Man, I didnít feel so negatively about it during my first viewing. As with all of these other Levinson films, I didnít think it was anything great, but I didnít overtly dislike it either; that would come later. As such, I had no particular axe to grind when I saw Avalon. Iíd heard some positive things about it and went in with a fairly open mind.

What I saw appalled me. Rarely had I seen such a heavy-handed film as Levinson used a semi-autobiographical theme to add his comments on what he apparently felt was the cause of all societies ills: television. Avalon should have been subtitled ďHow TV Killed the American FamilyĒ, as Levinson made his hypothesis clear throughout the flick.

At least thatís how I felt a decade or so ago - would my opinion remain the same now? For the most part, yes. While I didnít find Avalon to seem quite as horrifying during my second viewing, I still found it to be patronizing and smug.

Avalon tells the story of the Krichinsky family and takes place during the late Forties and early Fifties. As the film starts, we hear patriarch Sam (Armin Mueller-Stahl) recount the saga of his 1914 arrival in America to his grandkids. From there weíre introduced to the entire extended family as they sit for Thanksgiving dinner. In addition to Samís brothers Hymie (Leo Fuchs), Nathan (Israel Rubinek), and Gabriel (Lou Jacobi), we meet his wife Eva (Joan Plowright), son Jules (Aidan Quinn), daughter-in-law Ann (Elizabeth Perkins), nephew Izzy (Kevin Pollak) and grandson Michael (Elijah Wood).

The movie features no true plot. Instead, we observe the large clan through a series of vignettes, with the only running story relating to the joined attempts of Jules and Izzy to get ahead in business. The movie runs through a few years and follows the main family members - Sam and Eva, Jules and Ann, and Michael - as events take place.

Instead of a story, Levinson seems to link the events through the gradual depiction of the collapse of the extended family. At the filmís start, we witness a huge, close-knit group who all related well to each other and have a lot of fun. Slowly things start to change, especially when Jules lugs his brood plus Sam and Eva out to the suburbs, and the clan members become more distant from each other.

Lurking in the background throughout is the television. Itís no mistake that allís peachy until Jules buys a TV. After that, no one wants to connect with the others as everyone stupidly prefers to stare at a test pattern instead. (And they say TV shows are bad today!) Whenever Levinson depicts the distance between people, he makes the TV a presence in the frame. Was there a cause and effect interaction at work, at least in his opinion? It sure looks that way, as the film makes it seem like Levinson viewed television as a seriously negative factor in American life, though Iím sure he would have felt differently if only theyíd all been able to watch Homicide.

Levinsonís hypothesis appears smug and patronizing. He paints such a warm and rosy picture of society pre-TV and then makes things so glum and distant afterwards that it seems absurd. Never mind that it is hypocritical for someone whoís worked in TV to bite the hand that feeds him in such a manner; itís simply a flawed theory that takes to extreme views of both sides of the coin.

Even without Levinsonís inane critique of society, Avalon still would have been a fairly lame film. He tries to cram too much into the movie and rarely succeeds in making it interesting. The loose plot skips about from topic to topic and from year to year with abandon - am I the only one bothered that little Michael never seemed to age? - and the characters arenít strong enough to hold the whole thing together. Sam and the other older Krichinskys are little more than generic ethnic stereotypes, and the younger generation - who are mocked because they change their names to the more ďAmericanĒ Kaye (Jules) and Kirk (Izzy) - comes off no better. Avalon includes a fine cast, but the material wastes all of them.

Unfortunately, the formless story plods along for two hours before Levinson wraps thing up in an insanely abrupt manner. We jump ahead many years without much explanation and the movie basically just ends. Thereís no attempt to provide details on the intervening years, and the ultimate conclusion offers no kind of satisfying close. It felt as though Levinson didnít know what else to do.

Avalon is nothing more than sentimental pap, and reactionary pap at that. It seeks to glorify hoary concepts of the past while drawing an erroneous conclusion about future problems. Sometimes the passion of youth fades, but sometimes it remains. While I donít loathe this film with the ferocity I felt a decade ago, it still gets in my craw due to its sappy and pandering attitudes.

The DVD:

Avalon appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. As a whole, the movie looked quite good, with only a few small concerns to mar the presentation.

Sharpness seemed strong throughout the film. During a few wide shots I detected mild softness, but these were infrequent. For the most part, the picture appeared crisp and well-defined. Moirť effects and jagged edges presented no discernible concerns, and print flaws seemed minor. I noted a few speckles, but more significant defects such as scratches, blotches, tears or hairs were absent. I did see modest grain during much of the film, but Iím reluctant to term that a ďflawĒ because it seemed like it may have been intentional; the light grain made sense within the movieís nostalgic tone, so while it appeared throughout the picture, it didnít cause any distractions.

In keeping with the ďold-timeĒ aura, Avalon often stuck with a fairly golden palette. Much of the movie presented a warm, burnished glow that could look a bit heavy at times, but it generally seemed natural and rich. This doesnít mean that no earth tones appear, as I did see some very vivid bright colors, especially during the Fourth of July sequences. Black levels looked fairly deep and dark, but shadow detail could appear too thick at times. Some low-light scenes were excessively opaque, though most seemed appropriately discernible. Ultimately, Avalon presented a good but unspectacular image.

Similar comments apply to the filmís Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack. While the soundfield seemed stronger than I expected of a small, character-oriented drama, it still showed its age. The forward spectrum clearly dominated, and much of the track stayed firmly focused on the center channel. At times the imagery spread nicely to the sides, and we occasionally heard solid ambiance for those scenes. Surround usage stuck with similar characteristics, as most of the mix featured light atmosphere in the rears. Periodically the track brightened, such as when streetcars traveled across the screen; those instances not only displayed good panning and localization, but they made nice use of the surrounds as well. Nonetheless, the majority of the audio came from the front.

Sound quality appeared fairly strong. Although speech occasionally betrayed some edgy qualities, most of the dialogue came across as distinct and natural, with no problems related to intelligibility. Music sounded bright and accurate and displayed decent dynamic range, though low end wasnít terribly deep. However, effects showed very positive bass on a couple of occasions; I was surprised to hear my subwoofer come nicely to life on a couple of streetcar passes. Effects generally appeared clean and accurate, as did most of this mix. The audio for Avalon wonít win any prizes, but it appropriately fits the material.

The only area in which the DVD of Avalon falls flat relates to its supplements. We find some extremely basic ďTalent FilesĒ in which we get listings for Levinson and actors Quinn, Mueller-Stahl, Plowright, Perkins, Jacobi, Pollak, and Wood. There are also theatrical trailers for Avalon plus Levinsonís Bugsy, Quinnís Legends of the Fall, and A River Runs Through It. Finally, the DVDís booklet contains some brief but useful production notes.

For a few years, I maintained Avalon on a short list of the movies Iíve most despised. I donít feel quite as passionately now, but I continue to feel that itís a very flawed and manipulative film. I intensely dislike reactionary storytelling that views change as such a clear negative, and director Barry Levinsonís views on the collapse of the extended family are naÔve to say the least. Well, at least the DVD offered pretty solid picture and sound, though it skimped on extras. If you already know you like the movie, youíll probably enjoy this DVD, as it presents the film fairly well. Otherwise, Iíd recommend that you skip this clunker.

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