AMERICAN SPLENDOR

Region 2 (UK) Edition

Directors:  Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini

Starring:  Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, Harvey Pekar

THE FILM

American Splendor is the extraordinary story of an ordinary man. The man in question is Harvey Pekar, whose mundane day to day existence is chronicled in an autobiographical underground comic book, also called American Splendor. Pekar was lucky enough to encounter the acclaimed artist Robert Crumb at the beginning of his career. Pekar transcribed his oddball observations into rudimentary comic strip format, and Crumb turned them into art. The film depicts Pekar's gradual rise from downtrodden hospital records clerk to minor celebrity during the 70s and 80s. This process was accelerated by a series of appearances on David Letterman's late night NBC chat show, until Pekar decided that the publicity he gained from appearing on the show was no longer worth humouring Letterman's thinly-veiled insults.

The film blends dramatised reconstructions of Pekar's life with interviews with the real Pekar, and some of the people in his life. It's peppered with comic-strip style transitions, and even some animation, featuring Harvey's pen and ink alter ego.

American Splendor features a remarkable performance by Paul Giamatti (who played a similar role in the Andy Kaufman biopic Man On The Moon), with equally good support from Hope Davis, who plays Harvey's unusual wife, Joyce, and from Judah Friedlander, who effectively mimics Harvey's friend, self-confessed nerd Toby Radloff.

THE DVD

Optimum Home Entertainment's UK DVD release is significantly different from the Region 1 disc.

The film is presented in 1.78:1 format, with anamorphic enhancement, slightly cropped from the theatrical 1.85:1 ratio.

The disc has some nice animated menus, which are linked by especially-recorded snippets of guidance from Harvey Pekar. The options are presented in the form of comic strip panels, which means that they have to be viewed in a certain order. This isn't a problem, as long as you don't make a choice that leads you astray, because it's sometimes awkward to get back to the main menu.

The picture is generally acceptable. Much of the film is set in low-level lighting conditions. The exterior sequences are mostly overcast and gloomy. The film was shot on 35mm film, with high definition video used for the documentary segments. Contrast and colour balance are fine, but the film seems slightly soft throughout, even though there are signs of artificial edge enhancement. The film never seems as sharp as it might have been. This may be because the film was 'flashed' (partly exposed) before filming, for all the scenes leading up to an important turning point in the film. There are no distracting film flaws, and no obvious MPEG encoding artefacts. The average bit-rate is 5.71Mb/s, fluctuating wildly between about 4Mb/s and 8.5Mb/s.

The film appears to have been standards converted from an NTSC source. Under normal viewing conditions this will not be readily apparent (it's a good quality conversion), but there are panning shots that seem jerkier than they should be, and examination of the film in still frame and slow motion shows interpolation (frames blended into each other) on movement. In an ideal world the film would have received a proper PAL transfer from the source materials. Using an NTSC source is certainly to be discouraged, and it's rather unexpected to see the method used on a brand new transfer of a relatively successful film.

The film has a lot of English captions on screen, and these are presented in their original format.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 format, at 192kbps. The mix is un-ambitious, but fits the film nicely. The film has a jazzy score, which provides the mix with some depth, but it's generally workmanlike. The US disc has a 5.1 mix, which seems unlikely to enliven things substantially.

BONUS FEATURES

The disc features a fine commentary track, by Burman, Pulcini, Pekar, Giamatti,Joyce Brabner and Toby Radloff.  About an hour into the proceedings the company is joined by Judah Friedlander. The contributors bounce off each other, prompting trivia and anecdotes from each-other. No-one dominates the track, not even Pekar himself, and it's well worth listening to.

Road To Splendor (3'45")

Promotional footage from the premiere of the film, which took place at the 56th Cannes Film Festival. The premiere was attended by Harvey, Joyce and adopted daughter Danielle. Asked how he likes his "dip in the celebrity culture pond", Harvey replies "I could care less". Note that this featurette is shorter than the identically-titled 5'27" featurette on the Region 1 disc, which also features similar material shot at the Sundance Film Festival.

Harvey Pekar Meets BBC Collective (15m)

A straightforward, freewheeling interview with Harvey Pekar, shot for the BBC website, presented in 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.

Theatrical Trailer  (2m)

Behind The Scenes (5m)

This section is broken down into five very short segments: Paul & Hope, Genuine Nerd, Robert Crumb, Blue Screen and Title Sequence. Tantalising snippets from what should have been a more comprehensive Making of... featurette. At least two of these (the Paul & Hope and Genuine Nerd segments) appear as Easter Eggs on the US disc, and, frankly, because of their brevity, they'd have been better off incorporated into Optimum's disc in the same way. There's no "Play All" option, which is slightly irritating.

Other Releases

A mixture of anamorphic and non-anamorphic theatrical trailers for Elephant, Roger Dodger, Animal Factory, Amores Perros and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer.

SUMMARY

The film is an excellent biopic, although its subject matter is a little depressing, and it lacks a charismatic central figure. It's cleverly constructed and benefits from some outstanding performances.

Optimum's disc has a good transfer that's slightly hamstrung by its NTSC origins. The audio is serviceable, but should have been in 5.1, like the US disc. The UK disc scores over the American version with a slightly better selection of bonus materials, most notably the Harvey Pekar Meets BBC Collective interview, which is not on the US disc. The UK disc is missing a few bits and pieces, including some substantial DVD-Rom text supplements and image galleries, and an audio-only presentation of a song used in the film. However, the additional Behind The Scenes segments, brief though they are, and the BBC Collective interview, would seem to be more than adequate compensation.

The US disc comes with a nice booklet. The review disc was supplied without any special packaging, so it may or may not be the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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