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Avalon

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Armin Mueller-Stahl, Aidan Quinn, and Elijah Wood

Written and directed by Barry Levinson


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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    


When Barry Levinson directs movies set outside of his native Baltimore, the results are wildly split. For every brilliant Rain Main and The Natural, there's the horrific Bizarro world of Disclosure, Sphere, and, to be cruel, Toys. But when the busy writer-director indulges nostalgia for his boyhood home, his films shimmer with life and affection. 1990's Avalon is his most heartfelt.

Sam Krichinsky came to America from Russia in 1914. It was the Fourth of July and Baltimore welcomed him with fireworks. The way old Sam (Armin Mueller-Stahl) explains the event to his enraptured grandchildren, it was the idyllic experience of an immigrant family establishing roots in the New World. His whole family lived in one building, Avalon, and sent money to the Old World to bring new relatives over. It was a magic life defined by vaulting hopes, decent work, and close family ties. Considering Sam and his family members seem caught in an endless loop of stale arguments and conflict some 35 years later, it's not a stretch to assume Sam's recollection is rose-tinted. But it's the way he tells the story, see. It's the family story.

Things change. The 1950s bring prosperity, turbulence, and new obstacles to Sam's family. His son (Aidan Quinn) and nephew (Kevin Pollak) change their last names to the "easier" Kaye and Kirk. They start a business and move their families to the suburbs. They have children of their own, raised with a level of comfort Sam's generation never knew. Although the family still convenes for massive Thanksgiving dinners and the occasional 'family council' to decide important matters, Sam can't help but feel that they're far removed from the days of his cherished Avalon.

Things fall apart. Levinson's film is largely based on his own grandfather's stories, and the tone of the film reflects a tremendous affection, but also a tangible and sorrowful sense of disintegration. Of foremost importance to Sam is the family unit — he relishes in relating their history. But in the 1950s a new unit becomes the center of attention: the television. And suddenly conversation — even the ridiculous, trivial, redundant dinner talk the younger family members find so tiresome — becomes scarce and the unifying sense of family begins to slip away. This is not just a passing jab by Levinson either. The corrosive, but irreversibly pervasive, effects of television on this family are skillfully explored throughout the picture, in direct and passive ways, particularly in the way that it unravels the thread of family history, and on another level how television is the hallmark of a culture defined by comforts rather than struggles.

Despite its modest scale, Avalon is a sweeping, though intimate, epic. As the film patiently moves through its careful narrative, the Krichinsky family is so vividly realized that it becomes extended family to the audience, where every good time, conflict, and heartbreak feels wrenchingly personal. In addition to heartfelt autobiography, however, Levinson's tale is also an important, finely visualized social and anthropological examination of the key changes in family structure during the 20th century. It is a quiet masterpiece of great warmth, heart, thought, and humor.

Visually, Levinson is working at the top of his game, finding a bittersweet, nostalgic, and iconic style up to par with The Natural. Alan Daviau's cinematography is subtle, yet evocative of both the romantic storytelling and the darkening shifts within the narrative, and it links perfectly with Randy Newman's lyrical score.

Avalon offers fine performances all-around by Quinn, Pollak, Elizabeth Perkins, Joan Plowright, young Elijah Wood, and Lou Jacobi, with a show-stealing Thanksgiving rant. Columbia TriStar's DVD release features a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. It's a great accomplishment for Levinson to crown his "Baltimore Trilogy" with a film well and truly deserving of company with the excellent Diner and Tin Men. And maybe even the director has realized that his Baltimore stories are too strong to limit to a series of three — hence a fourth film, Liberty Heights, released in 2000. Let's hope there's more.

— Gregory P. Dorr



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