Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Angela's Ashes: Special Edition (1999)
Studio Line: Paramount Pictures

Angela's Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, comes to life in this stirring film from acclaimed director Alan Parker (Evita) starring Academy Award-nominee Emily Watson (Breaking The Waves) and Robert Carlyle (The Full Monty).

Life in impoverished Depression-era Ireland holds little promise for young Frank McCourt, the oldest son in a tightly knit family. Living by his wits, cheered by his irrepressible spirit, and sustained by his mother's fierce love, Frank embarks on an inspiring journey to overcome the poverty of his childhood and reach the land of his dreams: America.

Director: Alan Parker
Cast: Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, Joe Breen, Ciaran Owens, Michael Legge
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Original Score-John Williams, 2000.
Box Office: Budget: $25 million. Opening Weekend: $54,628. Gross: $13.04 million.
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, French Dolby Surround; subtitles none; closed-captioned; single side - dual layer; 30 chapters; rated R; 145 min.; $29.99; street date 7/18/00.
Supplements: The Making-Of Angela's Ashes; Exclusive Cast & Crew Interviews; Audio Commentary by Author Frank McCourt; Audio Commentary by Director Alan Parker; 2 Theatrical Trailers.
Purchase: DVD | Memoir - Frank McCourt | Score soundtrack - John Williams | Poster

Picture/Sound/Extras: B+/B+/A-

Today's news flash: apparently, if one grew up poor and Irish in the Depression-era Thirties, life pretty much sucked. It got even worse if your Da was an irresponsible drunk who sent all his earnings - when he could keep a job, that is - to the Guinness family via his local pub and your Mam was a whiner who never did much to remedy the situation. I find this information surprising; previously I'd believed such an existence would be filled with pink hearts and green clovers.

Today's relevant question: does Emily Watson ever play characters who aren't sickly and haggard? Okay, I haven't seen much of her stuff, but she seems to like those kinds of worn-out women who've been beaten down by... whatever. Brighten up, baby! Put on some stockings and go out dancing!

Once in a while I encounter a gem in the darkness, a film I thought I'd hate but instead I found to be entertaining and compelling. Angela's Ashes is not that film. I expected to loathe the movie; faith and begorrah, loathe it I did.

AA follows along the lines of "inspirational" movies like My Left Foot, whereby we hear of the pathetic life story of some poor wretch who perseveres and beats the odds. Yeah, that's just great - I'm all for beating the odds - but there needs to be something compelling happening there, and that just doesn't happen in AA.

We see the youth of little Frank McCourt, who goes from a little kid to a young adult in the timespan covered here. His family starts miserable and poor; they end miserable and poor. Da (Robert Carlyle) is "fecking useless"; he spends any money he can get on booze. Mam (Watson) isn't much better; oh, she talks a good game, but other than some occasional begging, she does little to elevate the family's social standing.

All Franky wants to do is go back to America, where the family spent a few years. Honestly, he seems rather selfish in this goal; he does all sorts of things to get ahead, but he appears to give little concern about his kin. Granted, I don't know how many kids would worry about that, when just surviving on his own is hard enough, but there was something mercenary about Frank that bothered me; he just seemed to have a "nuts to you!" attitude as he worked to sail to the States.

The whole story just seemed like pointless misery to me. Yeah, we saw Frank emerge from the wreckage of his family - sort of, since we only infer his fate - but the film just seems to wallow in the pathetic qualities. There's no charm or wit here - sorry, I didn't get too many guffaws from a kid referring to the "Holy Toast", and not because I'm ultra-religious - and it all appears to just exist to show general suffering. I mean, did we really need four different vomiting scenes?

As a film, Angela's Ashes is reasonably well-made. The cast fill their roles adequately, and director Alan Parker moves things along at a reasonable clip. I just thought the whole affair lacked a point. It didn't seem so much concerned with lifting up anyone as much as it did keeping them down, for there's little on which to hang one's inspirational hat. It's a dismal, dreary affair that contains few redeeming values. I didn't need 145 minutes of muck and mire to tell me that life as a poor Irish lad sucks.

The DVD:

Angela's Ashes appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not perfect, the picture looks pretty good, and it seems to accurately replicate the original vision of the film.

Sharpness usually looks nicely crisp and well-defined, with only a few instances of slight softness, most of which seem to result from the stylized photography. Moiré effects and jagged edges were not an issue, and I also detected very few artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV. In regard to print flaws, I saw a little grain and a few speckles, but nothing terrible.

Technically, AA is a color film, but this thing's so monochromatic it makes Schindler's List look like a Technicolor extravaganza. At times, I witnessed the lightest of hues - a flash of blue here, a tinge of yellow there - but that was it. I won't criticize the movie for its drabness, as that obviously was intentional, but I can't help but wonder why they didn't just make the thing black and white. Actually, I suppose a color film that looks so bland conveys the starkness of the situation better, because we'd probably fill in the hues in our minds for a B&W movie, but it still seems like a strange choice.

Since they're so important, I'm happy to report that black levels appeared nicely deep and dark, with some rich tones. Shadow detail also looked clear and acceptably opaque, with no issues related to thickness or heaviness. AA is a drab film that won't be used to demonstrate your home theater, but it seems to bring the story to life in an appropriate manner.

Also mild but effective is the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack. The soundfield itself seems fairly restricted but conveys a modest scope that fits the movie. The front channels feature the most activity, with a variety of gentle ambient sounds that spread out nicely. Music also pours from the sides at times, and both the score and some effects emanate softly but acceptably from the surrounds. It's not a showy piece - a couple of rainstorms are as exciting as it gets - but it works.

The quality of the audio seems very good. Dialogue sounds warm and natural; despite all of the accents, it remains easily intelligible at all times, largely due to the excellent clarity. Effects are clean and accurate, with adequate dynamic range, and the music seems bright and clear, at least in regard to the film's score; the film also features a fair number of songs from the era, which sound pretty terrible. However, that's to be expected, since the recordings themselves are poor, so I can't fault the movie's soundtrack for that. Ultimately, the audio seems clear and fits the project nicely.

Angela's Ashes provides a decent range of extras. We get two full-length audio commentaries, the first of which comes from author Frank McCourt. He offers an invaluable point of view, since he's the one who lived all of these events. The commentary features many more gaps than I'd like, but McCourt's statements are generally quite interesting, as they reflect on the truth of what is depicted. (This also is the only place where I heard an explanation of the story's title, which makes absolutely no sense in the context of this film; I don't want to explain it, as it may give away some plot points, but the title possesses so little connection to the tale told in the movie that I actually wondered if it referred to the ashes from Angela's cigarettes!)

Also spotty but usually enjoyable was the other audio commentary, this one from director Alan Parker. He leaves too many empty spaces but he provides some mildly compelling details about the production. I thought Parker concentrated too much on the locations used - he likes to point out where things were shot - but he also adds some good facts about various aspects of the film. It's not a great commentary, but it merits a listen for those who liked the movie.

The DVD features a documentary called "Ashes to Ashes: The Making of Angela's Ashes. I must admit I didn't like the title; it reminded me of the great Bowie song, which then made me depressed that I had to watch more about crummy old AA. In any case, the 26 minute and 25 second program offers a decent little look at the film through interviews, film clips and shots from the set. It wasn't terribly informative, and it definitely stuck to the promotional side, but I found it to be generally watchable.

More information comes from "Reflections on Angela's Ashes", a 16-minute and 35-second program that offers a series of interview clips. We hear from Parker, McCourt, Emily Watson, Robert Carlyle, and the three boys who played Frank. It's actually more interesting than the documentary; it covers much of the same territory heard in other parts, but it's well-produced and it includes some facts we didn't hear elsewhere. Mainly I liked it because it featured less (proportionally) of McCourt and Parker; no offense to them, as they're both engaging, but at this point I was a little sick of them, and the extra participants spiced up the mix. (By the way, it turns out that Watson's pretty cute when she doesn't look like a miserable wretch. Hey, Em - if you ever cheer up, gimme a call - I'll boil your potatoes!)

Finally, the DVD tosses in a theatrical trailer and a teaser trailer. I thought both of these misrepresented the film in that they make it appear to focus much more closely on Angela, whereas I found her to be a supporting character. The ads get the tone of the piece correct, and I wasn't surprised by what I saw, but I still believe they were a little misleading.

However, since they didn't lead me to think I'd like Angela's Ashes, I guess they were representative. I found the movie to offer a dull, dreary and dismal look at a wholly uninteresting story. The film is well-produced by provides nothing compelling. The DVD features very good picture and sound plus some strong supplements as well. If you think the subject may interest you, the DVD is worth a rental, but anyone with an aversion to this kind of "inspirational" stuff should stay away from it.

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