Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: The Caveman's Valentine (2001)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - Romulus Ledbetter lives on the edge. The view is incredible.

Detached from the world, misunderstood Juilliard-trained genius Romulus Ledbetter finds a frozen corpse outside his Manhattan cave. Determined to solve this heinous homicide, he risks the remaining shreds of his sanity for the sake of justice. Can a man whom no one believes prove a crime all too unbelievable for the imagination?

Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Ann Magnuson, Aunjanue Ellis, Tamara Tunie, Anthony Michael Hall, Colm Feore
DVD: Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Digital & DTS 5.1; subtitles English, French; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 18 chapters; rated R; 106 min.; $26.98; street date 7/17/01.
Supplements: Audio Commentary With Director Kasi Lemmons and Editor Terilyn Shropshire; Deleted Scenes; Theatrical Trailer; Cast and Filmmaker Biographies; Production Notes.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - George Dawes Green | Score soundtrack - Terence Blanchard

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

Many mystery movies have featured protagonists who werenít detectives. In fact, some of the most famous examples of this genre used atypical snoops. For example, Hitchcock famously utilized the amateur detectives in films like Rear Window and North By Northwest.

However, 2001ís The Cavemanís Valentine takes this concept to a different level. While Hitchcock put fairly ordinary people in unusual circumstances, Valentine works with an odd protagonist. Romulus Ledbetter (Samuel L. Jackson) was once a top-notch musician who studied at Julliard. For reasons unknown, though, heís had some rough times over the past few years as mental illness took hold of him. Now heís one of the legions of homeless folks who inhabit Manhattan. Romulus lives in a Central Park cave, a fact that begets his nickname of ďCavemanĒ.

Early in the film, Romulus discovers a frozen dead body stuck in a tree outside his cave. Although this appears to be a simple case of exposure, Romulus immediately declares that itís a murder and he contacts his police officer daughter. Rom blames the crime on ďStuyvesantĒ, the omnipotent evil power who Romulus feels is behind quite a lot of evil. However, matters complicate when a local drifter with whom Romís acquainted states that heís sure a prominent photographer named Leppenraub (Colm Feore) killed the boy. Of course, no one takes Romís declarations seriously, so he decides to investigate the crime himself.

During the rest of the film, Romulus depends on the kindness of strangers and semi-acquaintances to further his investigation. Why does he care? Mainly because of his obsession with Stuyvesant; Rom assumes that Leppenraub is nothing more than a pawn of Romís unseen nemesis. Romulus gets help from a well-meaning yuppie named Bob (Anthony Michael Hall) and reconnects with some old Julliard colleagues to get closer to Leppenraub and the truth.

While Valentine scores points for its unusual protagonist and its attempts to delve into the world of mental illness, it ultimately lacks much depth or conviction. On the positive side, director Kasi Lemmons fills her second film - after 1997ís well-received Eveís Bayou - with a lot of compelling photographic imagery. While I thought her vision of Romís chaotic brain seemed excessively theatrical, she still made the movie quite interesting from a visual standpoint, and the scenes in which Rom went over the edge were vivid ones.

Iíve been a fan of Jacksonís work for years, and for the most part, I liked his performance as Romulus. Most of the problems I found related to the writing of the character itself and werenít the responsibility of Jackson. At times, he seemed to be excessively broad and theatrical, but he committed himself to a form of portrayal that was generally consistent and powerful. Did I believe Jackson as someone with Romís problems? Not really, but he made the role provocative and charismatic. And if anyone cares, he shows his butt in one scene. Actually, if you look closely, you might get a glimpse of Samuel L.ís Jackson, though I really had no desire to further investigate this possibility.

Valentineís problems really relate to the script itself. For one, while the concept of a homeless nutbag protagonist was interesting, I really didnít like the fact that he was a fallen genius. This seems similar to the theme of Shine, and although it may make the main character more interesting on the surface, I thought it ultimately meant that the story was less compelling. Romís past makes things too convenient for him, and he never really seemed like much of an underdog; so many resources were available to him that much of his investigation came without a challenge. Romulus would have been much more interesting had he been a run of the mill crazy homeless dude, not some talent who fell into disrepair.

Romís past also meant that the script had an extreme number of coincidences and easy rides. His daughterís a cop? A past buddy from school just happens to have a party planned at which Leppenraub will be honored? These and other elements fall into place far too simply, and they make the story seem fairly unrealistic. The tale also hinges on a lot of improbable aspects to let it move. Out of nowhere, Rom has a brief affair with Leppenraubís sister Moira (Ann Magnuson). Why? Because it works for the plot. It makes almost no sense, but the story does what the story needs to do to push it forward.

One other flawed aspect of the film relates to its portrayal of the mentally ill. We get the feeling that Romís choosing to behave the way he does, as though he could just be normal if he elected to do so. The movie never really takes a deep look at the world of the schizophrenic, and it ends up with only a very thin and stereotypical idea of that existence. Romulus sometimes comes across more like an eccentric than a true nut, and his life lacks the sense of struggle.

Itís the failure to convey a feeling of reality that really lets down Valentine. Within this DVDís production notes, Romulus is described as someone whoís been ďdiscarded by society because heís unstableĒ. Huh? All through this movie we see people who attempt to help Rom. The film starts with folks from Social Services who try to give him a hand, and Romís daughter Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis from Men Of Honor urges him to seek support. Then thereís Bob, and Iím sure that Moira and some of the others would be more than glad to give him a lift. If anything, Valentine suffers because of the surfeit of resources available to Romulus; he isnít one of the many forgotten homeless.

The Cavemanís Valentine had potential, and the final product was a generally interesting film. However, it fell short of its prospects due to too many detective story clichťs and a general sense of unreality. It painted a cartoon portrait of the mentally ill and it eventually sank beneath some Scooby Doo conventions. Valentine has enough unusual qualities to make it watchable, and Samuel L. Jacksonís always worth a look, but as a whole, I thought it was a lackluster piece.

The DVD:

The Cavemanís Valentine appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although the picture displayed a few very minor concerns, overall I thought it was an excellent piece of work.

Sharpness always appeared terrific. At all times, the movie featured a very concise and detailed image that betrayed no problems. I witnessed virtually no signs of softness at any point during the film; it came across as nicely crisp and detailed. It was also a very tight presentation, as I noticed virtually no examples of moirť effects or jagged edges.

Some minor print flaws appear. I saw an occasional black speckle and a couple of small nicks, but nothing substantial interferes with the picture. Note that although Valentine featured some very stylized photography, the defects I observed did not appear to fall within the intentional realm. Some movies - such as Three Kings and Saving Private Ryan - provide ďflawsĒ that are meant to be there. I didnít think that the concerns I witnessed fell into this category; they seemed to be manifestations of issues found on the source material.

In keeping with the movieís stylized appearance, Valentine included some vivid hues, and the DVD replicated these well. Much of the film worked with a naturalistic palette, but when we got any representation of Romís inner mind or his perception of the world, matters would take a different turn, and that was when we usually saw the more lively colors. Green really came across the best, though I suppose ďbestĒ is a matter of interpretation; I found those tones to look appropriately and wickedly putrid. Ultimately, colors seemed very solid throughout the film.

Black levels were also quite strong. The movie boasted nicely deep and rich tones, and shadow detail seemed to be accurate. Low-light sequences came across as appropriately heavy but never excessively thick or opaque; even the most dimly-lit scenes were still quite visible and accurate. In the end, The Cavemanís Valentine provided a terrific visual experience.

I also was quite pleased with the filmís soundtracks. The DVD included both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 mixes. Although DTS tracks used to usually hold the edge over DD editions, that gap had greatly narrowed over recent months. In fact, of all the dual DD/DTS DVDs Iíve seen in 2001, very few showed differences that I found to be significant; I thought that the DTS mix of The Crow: Salvation outdid the DD track, but otherwise, I believe that all my recent comparisons appeared find virtually identical audio.

Although the tracks of Valentine also were fairly similar, I must acknowledge that I preferred the DTS mix. Both tracks were quite strong, but the DTS edition offered a smoother and richer listening experience. Bass response seemed to be a little tighter, and the soundfield blended together more cleanly.

While I definitely favored the DTS track, I still didnít think the differences were significant enough to warrant separate audio grades. I almost split the two, but in the end, I didnít feel that the DTS track quite made it into ďAĒ territory, and the DD mix was too good for a ďB+Ē rating. The formerís a high ďA-ď, while the latterís a low ďA-ď, but I feel ďA-ď best describes both.

In any case, I was very satisfied with the audio heard on both tracks. Valentine featured a very full soundfield that surprised me; I didnít expect so much activity from this kind of semi-indie film. However, Romís psychoses really allowed the track to open up and provide some effective audio. During more ordinary scenes, I heard a lot of nice ambient sound, as the environment seemed to be accurate and clean. When we went into Romís episodes, however, the mix took on a life of its own and became a more assaultive and demonstrative piece. All five channels provided sound that seemed well-placed and nicely integrated.

In addition to a variety of effects, Romís attacks allowed for a lot of speech to come from unusual places. None of this was meant to be clearly understood, but the ďvoices inside his headĒ cropped up all around me as I watched the film, and these offered a compelling aspect of the mix. Terence Blanchardís score also worked well. The forward channels provided solid stereo separation, and the surrounds contributed acceptable reinforcement of the work. When Romulus played the piano, I thought the mild echo added neatly to the sense of atmosphere.

Audio quality was similarly strong. Dialogue appeared to be warm and distinct, and I heard no signs of edginess or problems related to intelligibility. Music was bright and dynamic and the score always showed positive range; I never thought that any instrumentation appeared to be constricted or flat. Effects were clean and accurate, and they became appropriately hyper-realistic when Romís state demanded that. Ultimately, I thought that the soundtracks of The Cavemanís Valentine neatly complemented the film.

Although The Cavemanís Valentine doesnít appear as part of Universalís excellent ďCollectorís EditionĒ series, it does include a few decent extras. First we find a running audio commentary from director Kasi Lemmons and editor Terilyn Shropshire. Both women were recorded together for this screen-specific affair.

I found this to be a somewhat dry and lackluster piece, though it improved as it progressed. Lemmons and Shropshire make for a rather subdued pair, and it takes them a while to warm up to the task. Much of the track provides the usual praise that dominates many commentaries; we hear how great everyone was throughout the piece. When the program veers toward more informative matters, the pair tend to stick with technical issues. In that regard, I learned a fair amount of moderately compelling notes about these aspects of the process. They also get into some storytelling choices made along the way. Overall, the commentary remained a bit flat, but anyone who enjoyed the movie should also find useful facts in this track.

The DVDís other big draw is a package of four Deleted Scenes. These last between 22 seconds and eight minutes, 18 seconds for a total of 16 minutes and 39 seconds worth of material. Frankly, none of these exactly rocked my world, as they seemed to be fairly redundant for the most part. The last sequence was the most unusual, as it offered a long take of the seraph moths that inhabit Romís head. I canít say I thought this was terribly fascinating to watch, but it was a nice addition nonetheless.

Lastly, some DVD standards round out the package. We get the movieís original theatrical trailer plus some text Production Notes. Other than the silly statement about how Romulus was ďdiscardedĒ, these were pretty interesting and informative. The Cast and Filmmakers area provides minor biographies for director Lemmons plus actors Jackson, Magnuson, Ellis, Tamara Tunie, Feore, and Hall.

While The Cavemanís Valentine provides an interesting twist on an old mystery formula, some consistent flaws caused it to be less than satisfying. The movie featured a typically interesting performance from Samuel L. Jackson and vivid visuals, but an absence of reality and a lack of logic meant that it ultimately failed to become terribly stimulating. The DVD offers very strong picture and sound plus a small mix of decent extras. If youíre in the mood for a semi-quirky mystery, you might want to give The Cavemanís Valentine a look, but the overall product was somewhat lackluster.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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