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As I Lay Dying DVD Review

As I Lay Dying (2013) movie poster As I Lay Dying

Theatrical Release: October 11, 2013 / Running Time: 110 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: James Franco / Writers: James Franco, Matt Rager (screenplay); William Faulkner (novel)

Cast: James Franco (Darl Bundren), Tim Blake Nelson (Anse Bundren), Jim Parrack (Cash Bundren), Ahna O'Reilly (Dewey Dell Bundren), Logan Marshall-Green (Jewel Bundren), Brandy Permenter (Vardaman Bundren), Danny McBride (Vernon Tull), Beth Grant (Addie Bundren), Brian Lally (Dr. Peabody), Jennifer Howell (Cora Tull), Natalie Minton (Kate Tull), Anna Kooris (Eula Tull), Steve Nabors (Reverend Whitfield), John Still (Samson), Susan McMillin (Mrs. Samson), Ken Hudson (Quick)

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James Franco has had as productive a 2013 as anyone in Hollywood. He began by headlining the year's first blockbuster, filling the title role of Oz the Great and Powerful. A week later, he appeared in the acclaimed indie Spring Breakers in a bizarre but memorable performance now being campaigned for an unlikely Oscar nomination. Three months later, Franco played himself in the hit meta apocalyptic comedy This Is the End. He's popped up in small roles in The Iceman and Lovelace, films in which he had at one time been attached to star.
And now here's As I Lay Dying, the first film released with Franco as writer and director. He's not done, either. Sal, which Franco wrote and directed earlier, just opened last Friday in the Sundance Sunset Cinema and he'll play a leading role in the Sylvester Stallone-penned Jason Statham action thriller Homefront opening wide at the end of the month.

Let's return to As I Lay Dying, though, the subject of this review. With fellow newbie Matt Rager, Franco faithfully adapts the 1930 William Faulkner novel of the same name. Franco also stars in this period drama, one of just a few recognizable actors cast here.

As a director, Franco does not rely on the conventional. There isn't a composition or an edit that seems obvious. Much and probably most of the film unfolds with the use of a split screen. Typically, these present a scene from two different angles. Other times, the two sides are unsynchronized. Still other times, only half the screen is filled. No matter what, actors fall out of the narrow 0.89:1 half-frame with some regularity.

Darl Bundren (James Franco) and his brother Cash (Jim Parrack) find their mother (Beth Grant) dying on the other half of the screen in Franco's "As I Lay Dying."

The distinctive visual incongruity is one reason that this feels like an experimental student film with nary a commercial objective. More prominent is in the viewer-unfriendly manner in which Franco and Rager present the narrative. We surmise that the film centers on a family whose mother (Beth Grant) is dying. Her husband (which you need to research to clarify that he's not her son), Anse (Tim Blake Nelson), is not blessed with normal teeth. When his mouth isn't hanging agape, this beast of a man is running off his gums in an incomprehensible way. This is the one character to truly stand out. He doesn't seem to be the leader of the brood (that would appear to be Franco's Darl) or an especially wise figure. But he talks more than the others and in voice that's tough to understand and hard to forget.

Franco does nothing to render this story, one of the most celebrated novels of one of America's most celebrated writers, accessible. The characters and their relationships are unclear. It's even tough to find a single moment or emotion to relate to. The death of a parent is treated ethereally. These men take a journey to bury her in the city because that's what you do. Taking shape a little more clearly:
the brother who rebreaks his leg and gets saddled with a homemade concrete cast which becomes inseparable from his skin, and the woman who needs an abortion. This Depression Era hardship doesn't warrant sympathy because there remains great distance between us and the characters throughout. There's time for a son to rattle off the reasons why he built his mother's coffin as he did, but no chance to truly acclimate yourself to any of these personalities.

Franco makes a very pretentious behind the camera debut for someone who has seen the art in a stint on "General Hospital" and multiple stoner comedies. It isn't clear from the movie alone if this is simply his latest challenge to himself or if he has genuine filmmaking aspirations. A survey of his IMDb page suggests the latter; his director section, begun in 2005, has already grown to 22 credits, most of them shorts and documentaries, but a number of them upcoming features, including another adaptation of Faulkner with Rager (The Sound and the Fury) and a biopic of author Charles Bukowski seemingly co-scripted by Rager's brother.

Cash (Jim Parrack) explains what he put into making his mother's coffin. Dewey Dell (Ahna O'Reilly) finds medical assistance doesn't come easy for her type of woman's problem.

Easily one of the least endurable films of the year, As I Lay Dying will be deemed a waste of time by both serious, literate art house moviegoers and those who just like Franco. It's clear that creativity has gone into this apparent passion project, but it's almost as if Franco set out to make a film that could never play in more than two theaters (its maximum theater count, on the second of its two-week engagement).

Franco, who featured in the 2011 Oscar ceremony both as nominee and a host, even manages to bring his three-time co-star Danny McBride along for the humorless ride in the role of a character who just kind of disappears without explanation. I would love to hear Franco convince the "Eastbound & Down" star to partake in this and again in Sound and the Fury, whose not yet official cast is expected to include McBride. Not since Ethan Hawke's lethal Chelsea Walls has an actor's directorial debut shown so little promise.

Millennium Entertainment skips a Blu-ray and brings As I Lay Dying only to DVD on Tuesday, just a few weeks after its limited theatrical release and a few days since the movie became available via electronic sell-through and video on demand.

As I Lay Dying DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, Spanish
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: November 5, 2013
Suggested Retail Price: $28.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Black Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

The DVD's 1.78:1 picture is a tad blurry and digital looking, but apart from some shimmering, looks perfectly adequate. The default Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is more remarkable, with its tasteful atmosphere and random droning noises. You'll be glad the disc includes English SDH subtitles on a number of occasions when the dialect proves difficult. But then are we really supposed to know what's being said, as the subtitles enable?

It's worth mentioning that the trailer employs the wider 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which IMDb cites as the film's original aspect ratio. This is at least the third Millennium home video release in the past three months to have that information and a wider trailer accompany a 1.78:1 feature presentation. While it seems inconceivable that any studio would be cropping for 16:9 these days and without the public raising a fuss, the evidence is mounting to suggest that's exactly what's been going on. That would perhaps explain the cramped compositions on either side of the split-screen frame.

A costumed James Franco directs a non-period crew member in the "As I Lay Dying" behind-the-scenes featurette. Logan Marshall-Green is one of nine interview subjects discussing characters and production.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

The DVD's extras begin with a short behind-the-scenes featurette (3:44). While completely avoiding the split-screen usage, the piece reveals that the cast consulted Faulkner's
text during production and that Franco's use of inner monologue was primarily inspired by reality television.

Next, a Cast & Crew Interviews section gives us more of the sessions from which the previous featurette culled. It really could use a "Play All" listing, as it hears from Franco (6:07), Tim Blake Nelson (4:06), Danny McBride (1:25), Logan Marshall-Green (2:28), Ahna O'Reilly (3:05), Jim Parrak (1:57), producer Vince Jolivette (1:50), co-writer Matt Rager (0:59), and producer Rob Van Norden (0:52). Franco is articulate about the project and aware of its weirdness. His actors describe their characters and the production, whose challenges the crew members address.

Finally, a Previews section holds As I Lay Dying's aforementioned 2.35:1 trailer (1:24) along with the disc-opening ones that promote Parkland, The Iceman, the documentary 1, Killing Season, and Plush.

The menu plays clips inside a border. No inserts or slipcover jazz up the uncut Eco-Box keepcase.

Anse Bundren (Tim Blake Nelson) shows off his toothless mouth while Jewel (Logan Marshall-Green) tends to a horse.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

It has been a busy banner year for James Franco, but easily his weakest work of 2013 thus far is As I Lay Dying, a film he co-wrote and directed. Tough to follow and almost impossible to care about, this William Faulkner adaptation is a mess. I would estimate somewhere around half of those giving it a chance will turn it off before the end credits begin rolling. One could argue that Franco should keep his sleepy charisma in front of the camera, but, on the other hand, he can seemingly only improve as a writer/director.

Pending confirmation of a compromised aspect ratio, Millennium's DVD release of the film is a pretty standard independent movie effort. You could give it a look, but you'd probably regret giving it any of your time.

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Related Reviews:
James Franco, 2013: This Is the End Oz the Great and Powerful Lovelace The Iceman
James Franco, 2002-2011: 127 Hours Rise of the Planet of the Apes Spider-Man Spider-Man 2 Spider-Man 3
That Evening Sun Lawless Rectify: Season 1 Little House on the Prairie (2005)
Tim Blake Nelson: Holes Lincoln Heavyweights The Big Year The Thin Red Line
New: Broken Clear History Plush Only God Forgives Coming Home for Christmas

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Reviewed November 3, 2013.



Text copyright 2013 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2013 Millennium Films, Rabbitbandini Productions, Lee Caplin/Picture Entertainment Corporation, and Millennium Entertainment.
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