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The Criterion Collection presents
"My friend George said that he was going to live to be 100 years old. He said that he was going to be the President of the United States. I wanted to see him lead a parade and wave a flag on the 4th of July.
DVD ReviewNasia (Candace Ovanofski) and Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) sit inside a small closet in frustrated silence over the impending breakup of their relationship. When they start talking, the discussion is surprisingly poignant and contains emotions usually not conveyed by young people on the screen. Nasia is 12, and Buddy is 13, but this moment is serious for both of them, especially for him. When he requests a final kiss, she replies by asking "Do you love me?" His lack of a response supports her initial reasons for severing their bond. This scene is one of numerous instances of surprising reality in George Washington—the stunning debut film from 25-year-old writer/director David Gordon Green.
The story takes place in an dilapidated, industrial North Carolina town where whites and African-Americans live together in poverty. However, this film is not a depressing exploration into the failed American dream or the problems of surviving on little money. Green optimistically focuses his attention on the lives of five young people who each possess their own goals and thoughts about the world. They easily interact with the adults of the community and discuss the dreadful ghosts of both the past and the present. Still, the exuberance of youth pervades the tale even when tragedy strikes a central character. Everything may not work out perfectly, but hope still exists within the minds of the town's residents.
George Richardson (Donald Holden) has extremely thin tissue between his brain and the skin on his head, and even a minor blow could kill him. Water is especially dangerous, and he must sit on the edge while his friends play in the refreshing pool. Yet George is a very upbeat character, and his flaws hardly hinder him from doing worthy things. Following one heroic act, he begins wearing a cape and wrestling outfit and vows to help people. This development may sound hokey and ridiculous, but it works remarkably within the realistic structure. George needs an outlet to deal with his slightly crazed uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse), his absent father, and the death of a friend, and these actions provide that opportunity for him. Damascus' plight is especially interesting because it shows the continual results of a childhood trauma.
Green and cinematographer Tim Orr are devout fans of revered personal directors like Terrence Malick (Days of Heaven) and Haskell Wexler (Medium Cool), and their influence shines strongly in this picture. It contains beautiful images of children moving in front of ugly landscapes, but everything has a serene value captured by the exquisite photography. Shot in 35mm Cinemascope, this low-budget film evokes lush, naturalistic feelings that rarely appear in movies today. The shots often utilize a documentary style while also revealing a large-scale atmosphere. Much of the tone stems from a slow, mournful piano score that combines nicely with the attractive images.
This production has a cast composed almost entirely of nonprofessional actors, which adds even more to the genuine ambience. Certain moments do feel less rehearsed and amateurish, but they take nothing away from the overall effect. Green encouraged improvisation from his actors, which helped to create some of the most effective scenes. The standout performances come from Eddie Rouse and Candace Evanofski, who both convey plenty without saying a word. Donald Holden also brings considerable weight to George by keeping his peculiar actions sublime and under control.
George Washington features small, unforgettable moments that add little to the central story but help to convey the overall setting of the town. One scene with a group of young girls discussing men feels authentic without reverting to vulgar simplicity. Another brief interlude provides a more complete look at the town by following a motorcycle ride down the streets. Green avoids the pressure to follow a strict narrative and instead depicts the compelling people and places that surround the prime events. An especially intriguing relationship exists between Vernon (Damien Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachel Handy) following the traumatic incident. He is an open person who speaks his feelings and cares for others, and she moves around quietly and causes problems. However, their connection seems believable given the unique setting and conditions in their lives. Unlike the manufactured small towns in most Hollywood films, this community is entirely believable and could exist in the real world.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: George Washington envelops you in its lush cinematography, and anything less than a pristine picture would be extremely disappointing. Thankfully, Criterion has delivered an impressive 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that presents the remarkable images very effectively. There are very few defects, and the colors are sharp and easily visible. This film was shot with little money, and the source material does show a few signs of the smaller budget. However, the drawbacks are extremely minor and are understandable given the financial hindrances. This transfer still shines with vivid clarity, which heightens this story's power.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: This disc contains a 2.0-channel stereo transfer that nicely conveys the haunting, poignant score through the front speakers. While this track does not offer much complexity, it matches the film's realistic atmosphere by not clearing up the sound too extensively. Once again, the lower budget plays a role here, but the audio does not sound cheap or thrown together. Instead, the unforgettable music keeps the images retained within your mind for a long time after viewing this tale.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 16 cues and remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Deleted Scenes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Writer/director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider
This Criterion release also contains an interview with Green on the Charlie Rose show, which airs on PBS. First of all, it's startling to realize that this talented director was only 25 years old! Very few members of this age group (even within the industry) possess his respect for film history and the drive to create an innovative product. Although Rose is a good interviewer, he sometimes appears lost when speaking to young filmmakers about their craft. Luckily, he appears to truly understand the writer/director's motivations, and the discussion flows nicely. Green exudes a passion for cinema throughout the conversation that is extremely refreshing and provides hope for the future.
An enjoyable feature-length commentary with Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider reveals even more thoughts on this picture. All three have a refreshing connection that keeps this track from growing stale in any way. Green spends considerable time covering his main influences, including Terrence Mallick's Days of Heaven. Orr avoids technical complexity when explaining his photography goals, so everything remains straightforward. Schneider has known the other guys for years, and he injects some fuuny tidbits about his own contributions. This commentary provides a nice mix between scene-specific discussion and an exploration into the broader themes of the picture.
The true gems on this disc are two short films from David Gordon Green and an influential Clu Galager entry. Pleasant Grove was shot by Green at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1996. This story provided the inspiration for George Washington and contains some very similar scenes. There is a young boy with the same condition as George who also has adopted a dirty, old dog. The town setting looks very similar, and Paul Schneider also appears as a familiar character. Shot in a grainy, full-frame digital video format, this tale is rougher than the eventual feature film, but it still showcases glimpses at its realistic atmosphere. Green, Orr, and Schneider also provide insightful commentary for this feature.
Physical Pinball also stems from Green's time in school, and it features both Eddie Rouse and Candace Evanofski as father and daughter. Although it falls victim to some of the pratfalls of student films, it conveys plenty of heart. The plot concerns a young girl's beginnings of adulthood and the difficulties her single father has while dealing with this change. Both Evanofski and Rouse are excellent, and the tone once again correlates to his eventual feature film.
A Day With the Boys is a short film created by character actor Clu Galagher that offers a likewise naturalistic tone. The story contains no dialogue and mostly consists of a group of boys playing and running around for 20 minutes. However, there is a surprise near the end that totally caught me off-guard. This section contains a text introduction from Green that briefly explains this movie's effect on George Washington. It is often visually stunning, and relates the tale solely with pictures instead of words. It does move fairly slowly, but it is worthwhile in giving us even more background into Green's vision.
The additional extras include a lengthy deleted scene and the original theatrical trailer. The footage cut occurs at a town meeting where a small group discusses the problems facing the young people in the area. While the conversation is realistic and poignant, it really doesn't have a place in the finished movie. This scene runs for about eight minutes and includes optional commentary from Green, Orr, and Schneider. The preview appears with a 2.35:1 widescreen transfer, but the images are mediocre and the sound is fairly muffled. However, this piece effectively conveys the story's understated tone.
Extras Grade: A
Final CommentsGeorge Washington is one of the most innovative film creations of the young decade. Director David Gordon Green has a promising career ahead of him, and this wonderful story showcases his considerable talent. Once again, Criterion has spotlighted a unique, compelling tale and given it the ultimate treatment. This disc is highly recommended for audiences seeking a more personal type of filmmaking that rarely exists anymore.
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