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A&E Home Video presents
The Magnificent Ambersons (2000)

"I believe I can say now, I've always been fond of you, Georgie. But I haven't always liked you."
- Uncle George (William Hootkins)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 13, 2002

Stars: Madeleine Stowe, Bruce Greenwood, Gretchen Mol, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers
Other Stars: James Cromwell, Jennifer Tilly, William Hootkins, Dina Merrill
Director: Alfonso Arau

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:19m:04s
Release Date: February 26, 2002
UPC: 733961703405
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

You know how the biggest fish is the one you didn't catch, the one that got away? And how with each telling of the story, that fish you almost reeled in gets bigger and bigger? Well, that's rather how The Magnificent Ambersons hovers over the career of Orson Welles. His followup to his smashing debut, Citizen Kane, Ambersons was yanked from him in postproduction, or he lit out for South America at the wrong time, or something; there are many variations on this story, but they all end up with Welles' movie getting butchered. It's the masterpiece that might have been, the road not taken for Welles; if he had seen the picture through to final cut, if RKO hadn't snatched it away from him, perhaps not only would it be better than Kane, but over the long term, perhaps Welles could have been spared the indignities of his later years, with the boy wonder grown hugely fat and shilling for Paul Masson.

Somebody got the bright idea to right this historical wrong, and hence the project before us, a remake of Ambersons, "based upon a screenplay by Orson Welles," which in turn was based on a novel by Booth Tarkington. The comparisons with Welles are going to be inevitable, and taking this on is rather like hanging a "Kick Me" sign on your own back. So given all that, one wants to be charitable to what seems like a well-intentioned (if deeply misguided) project like this new Ambersons. It's tough to remain that way, though, given that the movie here is so thoroughly mediocre. It belongs to the peculiar subgenre of classic films remade poorly for television, and deserves its place on the shelf alongside such things as Ann Margret in A Streetcar Named Desire, Christopher Reeve in Rear Window, and Mark Harmon in Shadow of a Doubt.

Even if you put aside both Welles and Tarkington, the movie just doesn't stand up very well on its own. It's all gauzy close-ups and cheap emoting, playing out like an early 20th-century Falcon Crest. The dynastic family here is (come on, take a wild guess) the Ambersons, who live in Indianapolis and are headed up by Major Amberson, the great patriarch, played by James Cromwell. But the principal drama concerns his widowed daughter, Isabel (Madeleine Stowe), and her son, George (Jonathan Rhys-Meyers). Just returning to town is Eugene Morgan, who but for a few missteps twenty years ago might have been Isabel's husband, and his daughter, the lovely Lucy; Mrs. Morgan has passed away, and so there's a double romance, with Isabel and George re-igniting an old flame, as her son and his daughter start courting.

At the helm is Alfonso Arau, who made the luscious Like Water for Chocolate and the less luscious A Walk in the Clouds; his previous credits suggest no particular affinity for this material, and in fact the direction is rather pedestrian, with lots of basic shot/countershot scenes that you might find in, well, any television movie. (But then, maybe that's to be expected, as this is a television movie.) He seems to have placed undue emphasis on the Oedipal drama playing out between Isabel and George, and it seems like an instance of subtle subtext overwhelming the narrative. Maybe he felt like he needed to leave his mark on this material, but if so, this wasn't much of a way to do it.

The whole project is just generally lacking in any sort of visual imagination, and so it merely plods along, with an occasional "arty" overhead shot thrown in for good measure. Slavish obeisance to Welles wasn't in order, but some sort of passion for the material was, and that's nowhere to be found. So if you've seen the original, you're unlikely to care for this, and if you haven't, you'll probably be wondering what the big deal is all about. Most offensive of all are the closing credits, which whip down the left third of the screen, so fast as to be unreadable, and leaving the bulk of the frame for promoting what's next on TV.

Bruce Greenwood, as Eugene, is surely the best in the cast, as he seems true to the period without being stilted. (Joseph Cotten was terrific in this same part, so maybe there's just something about Eugene Morgan.) Stowe and Cromwell are good enough, though neither gets much to do; Gretchen Mol as Lucy is a pretty little china doll, and not much more. Rhys-Meyers as George is more or less the central figure of the drama, and George is a pretty loathsome character; perhaps it's a weakness of the source material, but it's a rough road when so much screen time is devoted to someone so repellent. (He never even gets a satisfying comeuppance.) Two other actors to mention: William Hootkins is fine as old Uncle George, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Welles in his later years; and Jennifer Tilly is typically ghastly as Aunt Fanny, an old maid.

Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: C-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The print is clean enough, with generally consistent color and black levels, so my suspicion is that the image problems on hand are from the camera negatives. On occasion the lighting changes within a scene, or even within a shot. Everything looks rather dewy, as if there were too many filters on the camera. Stanley Cortez, where art thou?

Image Transfer Grade: C


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: Some of the dialogue is looped appallingly badly, and the musical score is so sugary it may send you into diabetic shock. It otherwise all sounds clear enough, though lacking in dynamics and nuance.

Audio Transfer Grade: C


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The Making of The Magnificent Ambersons (21m:43s), produced to promote this on A&E, is bombastic to the point of self-parody. Every performance is described as "subtle and haunting," everything is "played to perfection." The actors are interviewed, as is Arau, whose English is heavily accented; not to be nasty, but I wonder if his command of the language was sufficient to appreciate the nuances of the piece. The choices for filmographies and brief biographies seem arbitrary: represented here are Cromwell, Mol, Stowe, and Orson Welles, but nothing for the director or any of the other actors. An additional thumbs down to the proofreader for the DVD case, on which two of the actors' names are spelled wrong. The dash is missing between the two halves of the last name of Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, which is forgivable; Dina Merrill is listed as "Diana Merril," which is not.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

With a title like this the filmmakers are asking for it, but this Ambersons is far short of magnificent. Cross your fingers that the Welles film will be coming to DVD some time soon, and pass this one by.


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