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Breaking Away: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray Review

Breaking Away (1979) movie poster Breaking Away

Theatrical Release: July 13, 1979 / Running Time: 101 Minutes / Rating: PG

Director: Peter Yates / Writer: Steve Tesich

Cast: Dennis Christopher (Dave Stohler/Enrico Gimondi), Dennis Quaid (Mike), Daniel Stern (Cyril), Jackie Earle Haley (Moocher), Barbara Barrie (Evelyn Stohler), Paul Dooley (Raymond Stohler), Robyn Douglass (Katherine Bennett), Hart Bochner (Rod), Amy Wright (Nancy), Peter Maloney (Doctor), John Ashton (Mike's Brother), Lisa Shure (French Girl), P.J. Soles (Suzy)

Buy Breaking Away on Blu-ray at Amazon.com

Today, though the Academy Awards' Best Picture field can accommodate up to ten nominees, there still seems to be little opportunity for a film that doesn't look like conventional Oscar fare to make the cut. After biopics, true stories, war films, and technically ambitious productions get in, what chance is there for just a plain old good film fitting none of these labels to get in?
For over seventy years, it was even more difficult to land a Best Picture nomination, with the award capped like most other categories to just five nominees. In such times, it would take something extraordinary to defy convention and get in on good, old-fashioned human interest storytelling.

Breaking Away was one of the fortunate few to get a Best Picture nomination without any tried-and-true ingredients. 20th Century Fox released this little movie in July of 1979 when the studio's big summer movie, Alien, was still dominating at the box office a couple of months into its long run. Months later, while Alien would be nominated in four technical categories, it was Breaking Away that earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Picture. The lattermost of those pit the film against fellow Fox releases Norma Rae and All That Jazz, Francis Ford Coppola's long-in-the-making Vietnam War opus Apocalypse Now, and the eventual winner, divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer.

All four had done more business than Breaking Away or would by the time their theatrical engagements ended. None of the five would go home empty-handed on Oscar night. Kramer won four statuettes in addition to Best Picture. Norma Rae would take Lead Actress for Sally Field and Original Song. All That Jazz and Apocalypse Now settled for four and two technical honors, respectively. Breaking Away was victorious in Original Screenplay, which puts it among some fine company to have won that award. It also won the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Musical or Comedy.

In Bloomington, Indiana in the late 1970s, nineteen-year-old boys like Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher) and his friends (Jackie Earl Haley and Dennis Quad) hung out at the quarry.

Set and filmed in Bloomington, Indiana, this coming-of-age dramedy centers on four 19-year-old friends experiencing the year after high school on their own terms. They are all unemployed mostly by design and largely undecided about their futures. Our protagonist is Dave Stohler (Dennis Christopher), a blonde WASP who has developed an affinity for Italian culture. He sings in Italian, speaks it to everyone (even the cat he's renamed Fellini), and models his cycling techniques after the nation's famous Team Cinzano. Dave's father (Paul Dooley), a used car salesman, is baffled by his son's behavior, which includes shaving his legs (as Italian cyclists do) and listening very loudly to operatic arias. Dad isn't sure whether college or a career is the best place for Dave. All he knows is that he's had it with "Ity" music and food.

As "Cutters", the local name for townies, Dave and his friends have a longstanding rivalry with the generally wealthier kids attending Indiana University. This comes to a head in a campus cafeteria rumble which results in a team of townies being allowed to participate against the college teams in the Little 500, an annual 200-lap cycling race. That somewhat contrived development sets up the race as the film's climax, a sequence that claims around the final fifth of runtime.

Before that, we get to spend time with each of the four lead youths, which include a former high school football quarterback (Dennis Quaid), a depressive former basketball player (Daniel Stern) who's something of comic relief, and a short-tempered grad who's very defensive of his height (Jackie Earle Haley, coming off three Bad News Bears movies). Each of these characters is satisfactorily developed, but we get to know Dave best, as he starts up a romance with a college girl (Robyn Douglass) under false pretenses, calling himself an Italian exchange student named Enrico Gimondi (after a fictional opera singer).

After struggling for most of the movie to understand their son, Dave's father (Paul Dooley) and mother (Barbara Barrie) come around in the end and cheer him on in the Little 500.

Breaking Away does for competitive bicycling what Whiplash does for drumming. It makes you care deeply and passionately about it regardless of the personal experiences (or lack thereof) with which you enter. Breaking Away is no more a cycling movie than Rocky is a boxing movie or Remember the Titans is purely about football.

This is a film about life, specifically the portion of life when a child becomes an adult. It does a great job of capturing the feelings of that period in your life honestly and poignantly. It also presents these trials for these young men not quite ready for adulthood as a reflection of its time and place. Many small cities still exist in Middle America and each has its share of 19-year-olds. But life for this age group is not what it was 36 years ago when boys would pass time at a quarry and jump in from some height. College vs. career isn't quite the decision it once was, with higher education becoming the norm and often giving way to even more education. It's tough to imagine 19-year-olds without cell phones they use on a regular basis.

Still, certain aspects of coming of age are not in danger of disappearing anytime soon: following your heart, hanging with your friends, and coping with parents who just don't understand. Breaking Away may not be a game-changer on any of these fronts, though its depiction of strained parent-teen relations is as good as any other film that comes to mind. Still, it approaches these topics without feeling like it's approaching topics but just authentically dramatizing life for these relatable characters for which it possesses evident care that rubs off on you.

Breaking Away is smartly edited, though it was one of two Best Picture nominees that weren't up for Best Film Editing (The Black Stallion and The Rose replaced it and Norma Rae). It is exceptionally well-directed by Peter Yates, a Brit who had a fairly long though not terribly distinguished career directing films, working his way up from assistant directing and television to primarily action films like Bullitt. Yates also produced Breaking Away, and his dual Director and Picture nominations were repeated three years later on The Dresser.

The Academy's bias against young actors is as evident here as on any film. Christopher's charismatic and expressive lead performance clearly warrants recognition. Though he continues to act and has been for almost fifty years now, Christopher's career kind of tapered off quickly; three of his four "Known For" credits come from 1979 to 1981 and the fourth is Django Unchained (his third time in an Original Screenplay winner, following this and Chariots of Fire) where his minor role can be chalked up to Quentin Tarantino's knack for long-memory, outside-the-box casting.

Dave (Dennis Christopher) starts up a romance with Indiana University co-ed Katherine (Robyn Douglass) under the false pretenses that he is an Italian foreign exchange student named Enrico Gimondi.

The other standout in the cast is Paul Dooley, a long underappreciated character actor who is at his very best here. It's a shame that Dooley, who remains very active in television and film at age 86, didn't get a Supporting Actor nomination for his fine work here (which is echoed in his similarly likable role as Molly Ringwald's father in Sixteen Candles). As his wife, Barbara Barrie did get nominated in the Supporting Actress category -- knowing Hollywood, amidst lighter competition -- for her less flashy but still great performance.

The one person who did win an Oscar for Breaking Away was Steve Tesich, a Yugoslavian immigrant whose Hollywood career was fairly short-lived. He adapted The World According to Garp from John Irving's novel, but didn't work again after reteaming with Yates for a third time on the forgotten 1985 drama Eleni.

Breaking Away soon inspired an hour-long ABC television series. Retaining Barrie and Haley, but recasting the other roles (including Shaun Cassidy as Dave and Vincent Gardenia as his father). Though nominated for two Primetime Emmy awards (including Barrie for another Supporting Actress honor), the TV show was cancelled after just seven of its eight produced episodes were aired.

The film version of Breaking Away recently made its overdue Blu-ray debut, arriving from Twilight Time in one of their standard 3,000-copy Limited Edition Series discs.

Breaking Away: The Limited Edition Series Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Marketplace Blu-ray Disc Details

1.85:1 Widescreen
1.0 DTS-HD MA Mono (English), 2.0 DTS-HD MA Mono (Isolated Score)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
Not Closed Captioned
Release Date: January 20, 2015
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50)
List Price: $29.95
Blue Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Fox DVD (January 29, 2002)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Breaking Away looks great on Blu-ray and as terrific as 1970s filmmaking techniques will allow. The 1.85:1 picture sports an always clean element with a pleasing level of detail. A few scattered shots look slightly out of focus, but were most likely shot that way. The somewhat muddy yellow-ish visuals seem true to the production era. The 1.0 DTS-HD master audio mono mix is basic, but exemplary, keeping dialogue and music clear and easy to understand. English SDH subtitles are included on the film if you should need them.

The trailer, TV spots, and poster all presented the title like this, but the film does not, which is why IMDb doesn't catalog it as "Break Ing Away" like "Ghost Busters." The cover art is adapted into the 16:9 aspect ratio to serve as the Blu-ray's top menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Breaking Away is happily joined by a number of bonus features on Blu-ray.

First up is a brand new audio commentary by actor Dennis Christopher and Twilight Time's historians Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo. Christopher gives first-hand insight into production, revealing the evolution of his protagonist, how he managed to look like a cyclist with just a few weeks of training, how he was served alcohol to get him through scenes (he was in his 20s), and the depiction of America right before the start of the '80s. Redman and Kirgo add analysis and keep the discussion flowing with their observations and appreciation. It's a really good listen that it's tough to imagine any other studio (apart from Criterion) that would take the effort to make this happen nowadays.

A third way to watch the film is with an isolated score track, presenting the Oscar-nominated Patrick Williams-curated score without dialogue or sounds over it.

Video extras begin with "Road to Adulthood" (0:32) and "Academy Booster" (0:32), which are merely standard definition TV ads for the movie, the latter of which touts its Oscar nominations.

"Dennis Christopher's Fellini Story" (12:53) is a clip seemingly recorded for but not used in the audio commentary. It involves not the filmmaker Fellini, not the feline from the movie, as Christopher recalls taking a charter flight over to Italy as a teenager, wandering onto the set of the director's Roma, and getting to play a small part in it.

The on-disc extras conclude with Breaking Away's long original theatrical trailer (2:57), also presented in SD.

Silent save for navigation swishes, the silent, static main menu simply retools the cover art, as Twilight Time BDs do. The disc resumes unfinished playback and includes a gallery of the company's full catalogue to date.

The final extra is found inside the standard blue keepcase: an 8-page booklet featuring another fine film-specific essay by Kirgo, which considers the film's depictions of class in America in terms of the two foreign outsiders (director Yates and writer Tesich) who made it.

Dave (Dennis Christopher) speeds up to keep up with the Italian racing team Cinzano's truck.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Breaking Away may not be widely remembered as an all-time classic, but it is a really good film that holds up very well. Funny, smart, and knowing, this tale endures and endears with its large-hearted tale of young men coming of age. Twilight Time's Blu-ray treats the film right, with a fine restoration, a really good new audio commentary, and a couple of other nice touches complementing the handful of recycled video supplements. This release is easy to recommend, as is the film with its appealing characterizations and story.

Buy Breaking Away on Blu-ray at Amazon.com

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Reviewed February 7, 2015.



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