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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
Henry Fool (1998)

"I've been bad. Repeatedly. But why brag? The details of my exploits are only a pretext for a far more expansive consideration of general truths."
- Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan)

Review By: Robert Edwards  
Published: December 14, 2003

Stars: Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak, Parker Posey
Other Stars: Maria Porter, Kevin Corrigan, Jan Leslie Harding
Director: Hal Hartley

MPAA Rating: R for strong sexuality, violence, and language
Run Time: 02h:17m:24s
Release Date: December 16, 2003
UPC: 043396009837
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Hal Hartley is one of America's most interesting, but least-known auteurs. In the course of his roughly 20-year career, he has established a reputation as a director you either love or hate. Certainly his early films, with his protagonists' deadpan delivery of epigrams and aphorisms, and occasionally contorted plot structures, tend to be polarizing. But in his later works, he has experimented more with plot construction and even tried his hand at something resembling realism, and it is this latter mode that most informs Henry Fool.

Simon Grim's (James Urbaniak) last name adequately describes his life. Considered to be retarded when he was growing up, his job as a garbageman allows him to support his medicated mother, Mary (Maria Porter), and slutty sister, Fay (Parker Posey). But we are only moments into the film when the unexpected arrives, in the person of the eponymous Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). Henry walks straight into the basement apartment of Simon's house, and insinuates himself as quickly into their lives as he has into their home. He's an enigmatic character, intelligent, literate, charming in a bad-boy way, with a shady past (he tells Simon "I've been bad...repeatedly").

Bad or not, Henry proves to be the catalyst that changes Simon's life, in the form of a blank journal and a pencil, which he gives to Simon with the instructions to write down everything he can't express verbally. Henry himself has spent years writing his "confession," his life story, in a series of notebooks, which is sure to be printed as soon as he finishes it, due to his connections in the publishing world. Simon unexpectedly turns out a poetic masterpiece, crude as it may be, and Henry promises to help him to polish it and get it published, too.

The film follows Simon and Henry as Simon's poem literally change the lives of those around them, its initial notoriety becoming ever more widespread, and its initial rejection and potential success. Interwoven in this trajectory are several interesting subplots involving Fay and her love/hate relationship with Henry, a thug named Warren (Kevin Corrigan) whose life is transformed by a right-wing politician, and his wife Vicky (Jan Leslie Harding) and daughter Pearl. Hartley's script keeps the plot threads, with their unexpected twists and turns, in perfect balance, and although some of the incidents are improbable at best, the film as a whole seems organic and natural, with less of the excess of many of Hartley's other films. This combination of plot convention and variation means that the film never drags, despite its almost two and a half hour running length.

Hartley explores many themes here—first and most thoroughly the notion of literary (and by extension, all artistic) "quality," the concept of a work being ahead of its time, and the ability of a work of art to change people. He also examines the meaning of friendship and betrayal and the nature of artistic creativity; takes potshots at the publishing industry; and mocks the transformative power of politics. In fact, Henry Fool is a typical Hartley film, in the sense that it contains more ideas per minute than the films of almost any other director.

Hartley has never been one to shy away from what might be considered noncommercial film-making, and fans of his earlier work may consider Henry Fool to be somewhat of a sell-out. But with its varied plot structure, exploration of interesting themes, and subdued yet interesting visual style, it's also one of his best works.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: The original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is slightly cropped here to 1.78:1, although due to overscan, most viewers probably wouldn't notice any difference. The transfer is great—colors are vibrant, yet always accurate, with some of the most realistic skin tones I've seen on a DVD. There's a lot of detail in the anamorphic image, and no compression artifacts are visible. About the only complaint one could make is that the black levels aren't quite as deep as they should be. Kudos to Columbia for supplying an excellent transfer (and a dual-layer disc) for a title which is sure not to be one of their best sellers.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is in two-channel Dolby with no surround encoding, which is a little disappointing. However, it's at all times clear and full-range, and is perfectly serviceable for a character-driven drama such as this.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Auto Focus, Laurel Canyon, Pollock
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Printed insert with chapter listing
Extras Review: Trailers for Auto Focus and Laurel Canyon are included, and surprisingly their anamorphic transfers are up to the standards of the main feature. The remaining full-frame trailer for Pollock is a bit washed out and less pleasant to look at.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

Hal Hartley tones down his characteristic stylistic tics for Henry Fool, and the result is an accessible, entertaining examination of how one man's life, and the lives of those around them, are changed when a mysterious stranger drops into their midst. The lack of extras on the disc is compensated for by an excellent transfer.


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