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George Washington: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual-Format Edition Review

George Washington (2000) movie poster George Washington

Theatrical Release: October 27, 2000 / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: David Gordon Green

Cast: Candace Evanofski (Nasia), Donald Holden (George Richardson), Damian Jewan Lee (Vernon), Curtis Cotton III (Kenneth "Buddy" West), Rachael Handy (Sonya), Paul Schneider (Rico Rice), Eddie Rouse (Damascus), Janet Taylor (Aunt Ruth), Derricka Rolle (Whitney), Ebony Jones (Denise), Jonathan Davidson (Euless), Scott Clackum (Augie), Beau Nix (Rico's Father)

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It's not a stretch to assume that a movie called George Washington will be about the first president of the United States of America. But this 2000 film isn't.
Nor is it what you would expect from the feature debut of David Gordon Green, the director of Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. Those facts give this unassuming little independent drama the element of surprise and help enable it to disarm and delight.

The film takes place over summer in a small, decaying southern town. Our focus is chiefly on a group of poor pre-teens and young teens who keep themselves occupied with aimless outdoor exploration and play. -- Spoiler Alert?! -- These children's lives change when one of them, the undersized, bespectacled Buddy (Curtis Cotton III), dies from a head trauma during some very mild horsing around in a remote public bathroom. The three witnesses to this event keep the incident secret and go on carrying the heavy burden of guilt. It weighs heaviest on George Richardson (Donald Holden), a boy with soft, sensitive skull who risks his life to save a barely-known boy from drowning. Following that, the quiet, pensive George ties a blanket around his neck as a cape, pairs it with his wrestling uniform and fashions himself a community superhero.

Assorted other incidents occur this summer. George adopts and cares for a stray dog he tries to keep secret from his canine-loathing, hot-tempered uncle Damascus (Eddie Rouse). Railroad workers make small talk over lunch amongst themselves and with some of the kids. A girl who recently dumped Buddy for being a little kid moves on to George without much to report.

In the film's opening scene, Nasia (Candace Evanofski) dumps Buddy (Curtis Cotton III) for being too much of a little kid. Vernon (Damian Jewan Lee) and Sonya (Rachael Handy) cope with the death of their friend in their own very different ways.

George Washington, whose title is never made entirely clear, is a film whose existence defies what you know about turn-of-the-millennium cinema and about Green, who wrote, directed, and produced it at age 24, a recent graduate of North Carolina School of the Arts. Green was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and grew up in Richardson, Texas. Unlike most of his cast, he is white. Yet, he writes characters, dialogue, and situations with such specificity and naturalness that you'd think he was drawing from personal experience as an impoverished black youth.

It's a mystery how this artfully shot, lyrically composed debut, a suitable choice for The Criterion Collection all the way back in early 2002, connects to Green's subsequent directing efforts. One assumes that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg knew his work and got him to direct 2008's Pineapple Express, a fine and profitable action/comedy produced by Judd Apatow at the height of his commercial success. That experience presumably paid better and demanded less of Green than previous films he both wrote and directed, like All the Real Girls (what?), Undertow (huh?), and Snow Angels (what?).

Green's past may be unfamiliar to the viewers of his mainstream comedies, but critics meanwhile can't review his work without lamenting his bizarre career trajectory. And while upbeat escapism and steady pay is probably fulfilling, Green seems to be returning to his roots, between last year's decidedly indie Prince Avalanche (an underwhelming two-man show starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) and Joe, a Nicolas Cage drama that opens next month to mounting festival acclaim.

Railroad worker Rico Rice (Paul Schneider) has a chat with a heroically dressed George Richardson (Donald Holden) in David Gordon Green's "George Washington."

Green could strike out creatively for the rest of his life -- in fairness, I haven't seen Your Highness and kind of enjoyed The Sitter -- and he would still have made a mark as a filmmaker for George Washington.
It has a little bit of a student film feel and the entirely inexperienced cast (rarely seasoned since then) doesn't always give the most polished deliveries. But that is part of the charm and power. It doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like spending one of the last summer vacations of middle school and finding it less carefree, innocent, and happy than it should be.

The only recognizable face in the cast is Paul Schneider, playing the most focal of the railroad workers, the boss' son. Schneider reteamed with Green on All the Real Girls and has made regular appearances since in films as high profile as Lars and the Real Girl, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Water for Elephants. For me, he will always be best remembered as the out-of-place would-be leading love interest whom "Parks and Recreation" dropped after two seasons.

Hailed by Roger Ebert as the fifth best film of 2000, George Washington picked up some critic and festival accolades as well as four Independent Spirit Award nominations following its relatively unremarkable run in six coastal theaters. Its inclusion in the Criterion Collection, where it claims spine number 152, has undoubtedly done some to raise its profile. But it's generally still pretty obscure, Green's widely-seen comedies not being the kind that encourage viewers to go back and discover his older, more serious work. The film hit high definition this week, with Criterion treating it to a two-disc Dual-Format Edition consisting of one Blu-ray and one DVD.

George Washington: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray + DVD Dual Format Edition cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.35:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 2.0 DTS-HD MA (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled
Release Date: March 11, 2014
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.95
Clear Keepcase
Also available on Amazon Instant Video
Previously released as Criterion Collection DVD (March 12, 2002)

VIDEO and AUDIO

Along with the unorthodox presentation, bold, striking 2.35:1 compositions distinguish George Washington. Though it can't fairly be compared to its contemporaries (e.g. X-Men and Mission: Impossible II), the film looks great in high definition, not suffering from the technical woes or unsteady amateurishness you expect of a directorial debut. The DTS-HD master audio, plain 2.0 surround, isn't as remarkable, but it dispenses the score, narration, and dialogue evenly and effectively. As always, Criterion supplies English subtitles, but only on the film.

In "Pleasant Grove", the short that inspired the feature, a boy discusses his secret dog with young men hanging out by train tracks. Eddie Rouse and Candace Evanofski play father and daughter in David Gordon Green's 1998 student short "Physical Pinball."

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Identical on both discs, the extras begin with an audio commentary by writer-director David Gordon Green, cinematographer Tim Orr, and actor Paul Schneider. It was recorded back in 2001, not far removed from when the three young men were North Carolina School of the Arts classmates. A number of factors give this greater appeal than the typical commentary. Firstly, it's a debut which always generates some additional excitement, especially from those as passionate as these three are.
It's also recorded close to filming, ensuring that memories are specific and vivid. That production itself is rather unusual, giving them more to say. Furthermore, most novices are not often this knowledgeable. The inspirations cited -- from Terrence Malick to Robert Altman -- are many and notable. All in all, with Green leading the way, this track is more rewarding than most.

Kicking off the video side (where everything is encoded in HD on Blu-ray, but limited by source/age) are three short films. The first two are films Green made as a UNCSA student.

Shot on video in 1996, the slow Pleasant Grove (14:55) is clearly George Washington's direct inspiration. It similarly tells the story of a black boy who hangs out by train tracks and keeps a dog in secret from his animal-hating father. It's also equipped with illuminating commentary by Green, Orr, and Schneider, one of two George Washington cast members to appear in both shorts. Green acknowledges the influences of Killer of Sheep and "Sesame Street" short documentaries.

The more polished, film-shot 1998's Physical Pinball (20:28) centers on a poor black girl (Candace Evanofski) whose coming of age poses challenges for her widowed father (Eddie Rouse).

Boys will be boys in Clu Gulager's 1969 short "A Day with the Boys." A year after the film's theatrical release, the film's already visibly older young actors revisit their experience.

We then find the 1969 short A Day with the Boys (17:58), directed by actor Clu Gulager and shot by the legendary László Kovács. You can detect its influence on George Washington for its artsy, understated portrait of boys being boys outdoors in nature, on train tracks, and near manmade ruins, later joined by a businessman. An odd and trippy thing that no one would see if not here, its inclusion by Criterion is commendable.

Less exciting than it would be now, a "Cast Reunion" (15:55) reassembled five of the film's young leading actors (Candace Evanofski, Donald Holden, Damian Jewan Lee, Curtis Cotton III, and Rachael Handy) back in 2001, a couple of visible years after filming the movie. Each recalls the casting and rehearsal processes, their characters compared to their own personalities, their filmmaking experiences, and their reactions to the finished film, before voicing their future ambitions. The then-afroed and pick-wielding Cotton gets special notice for his quotable remarks that include a challenge to Denzel Washington.

Deleted from the film, a long, improvised town meeting about immunizations and other topics is preserved among the supplements. A baby-faced David Gordon Green discusses his directorial debut in a March 2001 episode of "Charlie Rose"

A long, unnecessary deleted scene (8:27) shows us a town meeting moderated by Schneider's character in which concerns about local problems are aired. It can be viewed with commentary from Green, Orr and Schneider which confirms your suspicions that the whole conversation was improvised.

Next comes David Gordon Green's 2001 interview by Charlie Rose (14:38) on his eponymous PBS talk show. It's heavy on clips, but gathers the then appropriately surnamed director's thoughts on filmmaking, his tastes, his influences, and the film's title.

The "George Washington" trailer wisely quotes Roger Ebert's glowing praise. Blu-ray viewers will get this menu image about half the time.

Finally, we get a rough-looking George Washington trailer (1:39) touting its festival selections and awards and Roger Ebert praise.

The menu briefly sets a portion of the sometimes disjoint, droningly harmonic score over a couple of static images,
which seemingly alternate at random. The Blu-ray supports bookmarking and also lets you resumes playback universally.

Inside one of Criterion's standard clear keepcases, a booklet folding open to 8 pages sits across from the two plainly-labeled discs. It includes standard acknowledgements and transfer information, a statement from Green, and a reprint of the 2002 DVD's 4-page essay from controversial New York critic Armond White. Though questionable in places, White's celebration and analysis of the film may be one of his least contrarian articles written.

Dressed in a cape, helmet, and wrestling uniform, George Richardson (Donald Holden) takes it upon himself to keep his town of New Street safe in the 2000 film "George Washington."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The haunting and evocative George Washington is an unknown gem well worth discovering. There is no better way to do that than Criterion's new Blu-ray + DVD combo, which retains an extensive supply of supplements besides treating the film to its finest audio/video to date. This set is easy to recommend.

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Related Reviews:
Film Debuts: Beasts of the Southern Wild • Slacker • Fruitvale Station • Badlands • The Kings of Summer • Shallow Grave
Millennial Criterion Collection: Rushmore • Being John Malkovich • Traffic • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas • The Thin Red Line
The Tree of Life • Winter's Bone • In a Better World | New to Blu-ray: Nebraska • Wadja
Directed by David Gordon Green: The Sitter

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Reviewed March 13, 2014.



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